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Finding Inspiration For Innovation From Black Sheep

There is no innovation without creativity, but where can one find inspiration?

11Oct

With continuous breakthroughs in technology, the last decade can be called the era of innovation. There have been significant achievements across all industries, from pharma to gaming, thanks to bold ideas and determination of innovators who made it possible. Today, startups and incumbents understand that without continuous idea flow they wouldn't be able to succeed in the business arena. Innovation as an end result is hard to achieve because it's not solely about product development and business aspects - it's creativity that plays a critical part, but how can a company get inspired?

Inspiration doesn't always occur naturally, therefore it's important to stay alert of the surroundings because innovation can come from completely unexpected places. Over the years, there have been many strategies created and methods discovered, so instead of looking elsewhere, companies are often tempted sticking to existing methodology. However, if something worked for one project, it doesn't mean it will work for another.

Regarding the creativity, startups have an advantage here. It's not that they are more creative than incumbents generally, but simply because they have nothing to lose. The best ideas have proven to be supported by approaches that have never been used before, and to discover them, companies must be thinking bold. With mature companies, taking risks is unlikely to be approved by the CSO, but if incumbents want to innovate they must experiment.

The challenge here falls for the companies with a proven record of success. Firstly, the danger lies in using the same tactics over and over again without changing the strategy. Methods will work and will be capable of maintaining the routine, but the probability of delivering innovation will be decreasing each time.

The second danger is in allowing oneself to fully enjoy the business success. As the wisdom says 'the worst two words in the English language are 'good job''. Being satisfied and becoming complacent is a trap. These qualities can trigger bias and subjectivity when working on the next product, but most importantly the company stops challenging itself. The animation giant Pixar faced this challenge but managed to prevent the negative consequences.

When Pixar had their triple success with Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Toy Story 2, they understood that if they allow overconfidence to take over, it would be the direct path to becoming complacent. Bearing in mind that the company still needed a fresh flow of inspiration for next projects and didn't want to use an old strategy, they took the risk and looked elsewhere. The decision was to invite Brad Bird, the film director, who at that time, was famous for having directed a financial failure in the form of The Iron Giant. Why did they hire somebody who failed?

When companies acknowledge that they have the right skill set and vision but missing creativity, they sometimes seek inspiration from 'black sheep'. Black sheep are professionals who either failed because of their untraditional vision or simply had not been recognized for the same reason. These people can be that missing element for boldness in decision-making and objectivity. In his interview with McKinsey, Bird said Pixar was extremely cautious with becoming complacent and in order to continue their record of success, they needed to 'shake things up'. So Bird's approach was to look out for talented people who’s ideas were essentially crazy but they knew how to bring them to life.

With the smaller expenditure and the green light for testing bold ideas, the heads of Pixar and Bird managed to create a passionate team that could prove their innovative theories. Innovation can't exist in a vacuum, and the lesson here is to prioritize threats in product development. The worst should be not the failed experiments, but the inability to see if the company is losing track by being overwhelmed by its own success.

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