Are you foolish enough to innovate?

“Stay hungry, stay foolish” — Steve Jobs

How can you make a great breakthrough? How can you start the next era-defining business, write the next great song, create the next political movement? To do any of these, you must be more innovative. So where do you start?

Legendary Finnish architect Eero Saarinen sat one morning staring at a broken grapefruit peel, the remains of his breakfast. He was in the middle of an enormous project, designing a new airport for one of the world’s great cities — New York. Staring at the fruit peel, a vision suddenly grabbed him. He would design the airport shaped like a split grapefruit peel. One of the most groundbreaking pieces of architecture — the TWA terminal at JFK airport — was the result.

By Roland Arhelger — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

So, how did Saarinen do it? He took on an idea that would have seemed ludicrous to most — something outside the ordinary. How do we follow Saarinen’s lead?

In the seminal book ‘A Primer on Decision Making‘ — Stanford Professor James G. March tells us that there are the three ingredients in a company needed for innovation: slack, luck and foolishness.

Slack is the difference between the outcome chosen, and the best possible outcome (say a successful product sold 1 million, but could have sold 10 million with a different decision). In an organisation, more slack means more innovation. How do you know if there is slack in your company? If you continually exceed targets, you are in the right place. Beware, slack can change. When performance in an organisation exceeds aspirations, slack accumulates, and when performance decreases, slack decreases. 

Luck is necessary for successful innovation. Luck can come in many guises, the right timing, a breakthrough in a related industry, new staff creating the ‘right’ chemistry in a team. Because innovations which provide breakthroughs are difficult to identify in advance — a very promising idea can fail miserably — some level of luck is necessary for an innovation to take hold.

Foolishness produces major innovations. It is the most important ingredient. Ordinary ideas don’t make great breakthroughs, an ordinary idea preserves the existing state of affairs. Organisations need to support foolish ideas even if they have a high probability of failure. This requires a high tolerance for risk and a culture that promotes innovation over conformity.

As someone in an organisation, what can you do to be more innovative? There are three things — you must:

  1. favour high-quality information over social validity
  2. understand your risk tolerance
  3. be foolish.

People in an organisation seek social validity over high-quality knowledge, according to March. Organisations are social systems, all social systems require a shared understanding of the world. In any organisation, there are ambiguities in meaning exists between people. Different people have different interpretations of reality. These ambiguities and interpretations threaten the social system. To combat this threat, mechanisms emerge to create a shared understanding among all participants. We

  • edit our experience to remove contradictions. 
  • seek information to confirm decisions.
  • forget disconfirming data.
  • remember previous experience as more consistent with present beliefs than was the case.
  • change beliefs to become consistent with actions.

A preference for vivid stories emerges, with lots of detail (which is often irrelevant). This allows people to process lots of extra information. The amount of information processed increases confidence, it does not increase accuracy. Beware of detailed stories — these stories give the decision makers what they want — to see the world with more confidence rather than more accuracy.

Every innovator takes risks. To get more innovative results, you must take some level of risk. It’s important to understand your risk appetite when making any decision — it is driven by:

  1. Personality — your natural trait towards risk taking
  2. Reaction — your ability to take variable levels of risk depending on the situation. Decision makers are more risk averse when the outcome involves gains, and more open to risk when it involves losses.
  3. Reasoned choices — you may make a reasoned choice depending on the situation. For example, if you need to finish first in a contest it requires a very different approach than creating an internal partnership with another department.
  4. Reliability — risks taken are affected unconsciously because of unreliability. The situation may suffer from a lack of knowledge, breakdown in communication, trust, or structure. The greater the ignorance, the greater the variability of outcome, the greater the risk.

Finally, for innovation to occur, you need to be foolish. So, what does foolish mean in this context? Innovative ideas take a concept that flies in the face of ‘common knowledge’ and transforms everything around it. However, there is great social pressure in organisations to create a feeling of safety for all and proceed with ideas that give a ‘comfort level’ across the whole group. Anything outside this is considered foolish. A simple check on your idea is — if it doesn’t seem foolish to others, chances are that it’s not likely to be a bold enough vision. A true innovator is treated as a fool when they propose a breakthrough — as the following famous examples show:

  • “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.” — workers whom Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist in his project to drill for oil in 1859
  • “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates response to his urgings for investment in the 1920s
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
  • “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” — Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

It is easy to be a cynic and costs nothing to criticise. It is hard to be an innovator. First off — you need to be conscious of how you make decisions. You must be in a supportive organisation. You must take risks and appear foolish to some people. Pray for some luck.

But what is life for, if not to try? Life is to be lived, and every brilliant innovation comes from a person just like you. How many innovations have we lost because it was easier not to rock the boat, because it was easier to listen to the crowd, easier to do what we have always done before. We must grasp the nettle and fight the urge to be safe.

As Irish playwright Samuel Beckett famously said — “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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