The Innovator’s Paradox

When’s the best time to implement change?

Before you need to do so.

During the 2008–2009 financial crises, many organizations viewed innovation as a choice. Not so today. If you and your organization fail to innovate, you’re on the path to stagnation and obsolescence.

Start by asking three question sets proposed by consultant Scott D. Anthony in The Little Black Book of Innovation: How It Works, How to Do It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011):

  1. What do underlying trends suggest about possible future states? What would happen if some of these trends converged into a perfect storm?
  2. Where is there a small, but growing, trend? Anything that has doubled in size is a potential disruptor, regardless of its small size today.
  3. What can you learn from analogies and metaphors? What similar situations have companies faced in the past? What can you learn from others’ mistakes and history?


Innovation is not just about finding a new product or service. You must create solutions to customers’ problems—even the ones that aren’t yet articulated.

Break down the process into four distinct phases:

  1. Discover opportunities.
  2. Organize ideas into plans or pilot projects.
  3. Assess, test and learn from ideas.
  4. Execute.


To innovate, companies focus on their customers and end-users. They devote resources, teams and processes to find out intimate details about customer experiences.

Regrettably, this challenging phase is often glossed over. It isn’t productive to simply survey customers about their needs or wants. Most customers will provide only cursory answers to this question.

Focus groups are often ineffective if you want to discover customers’ frustration points. Participants couch their answers to conform to group dynamics or erroneously assume others are on the same page. First-hand observation of product usage works better when trying to come up with innovation opportunities.

To fully understand what goes on in customers’ minds, ask them what they’re trying to accomplish with your product or service. Management guru Peter Drucker has been known to explain it like this:

“The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it sells him. One reason for this is, of course, that nobody pays for a ‘product.’ What is paid for is satisfaction.”

Ask customers several successive questions to determine how they wish to use your product or service to achieve satisfaction:

  • “Why?”
  • “Why not?”
  • “What if…?”


Some recently published books suggest that a strong idea is a good starting point for finding growth opportunities. In truth, your first idea is usually wrong in some meaningful way. Use it, instead, to develop the next idea, until you find what works.

Moving from good idea to growth requires a robust blueprint or full schematic of what your ideas will ultimately yield. Research how other leaders have solved similar problems.

Your idea doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be good enough to deliver better solutions. Your plan also has to be realistic.

  • How will you test the idea?
  • What resources will you need (partners, customers, time, money)?
  • What are possible revenues (short- and long-term)?
  • What are the possible threats and barriers (short- and long-term)?
  • What assumptions are you making?

Helpful tip: Look for innovation inspiration by searching online. A good place to start is the 20-minute video talks by experts at TED.


Ideas are relatively easy; what’s hard is actually doing something with them.

You must be willing to accept failure and learn from mistakes. This requires resilience and persistence. Be alert to the signals of a disruptive solution, as opposed to a failure. How can you provide a simpler, more convenient or more affordable answer to your customers’ frustration points?

Tests are the best ways to learn about existing critical assumptions and to identify new ones. As valuable as research is, you’ll know whether your idea works only after actual implementation.


After completing the testing, learning and revising phases, put your plans to work. Start with a pilot project to minimize resources and maximize potential.

You’ll need to manage resources to improve potential. Determine what you’ll do yourself and what you’ll delegate. Involve partners where feasible.

If the project is part of a larger organizational mandate, prepare a presentation on your results for involved executives. Your presentation style and contents will influence your project’s acceptance or rejection, so be meticulous. You may love your baby, but how will you convince others to adopt it? Seek help from presentation experts, if necessary, to ensure success.


Business professors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen decoded what they call The Innovator’s DNA in their book of the same name (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).

Successful innovators master associational thinking. They make connections among seemingly unconnected inputs.

Here are four time-tested approaches for gathering stimuli and making connections:

  1. Questioning: An innovative mind makes a lot of “what if?” inquiries.
  2. Networking: Innovators interact with people from diverse backgrounds to access new perspectives.
  3. Observing: Innovators are always looking at the world with business radar to detect surprising solutions.
  4. Experimenting: Innovators try new things, in new places, to expose themselves to new experiences.

You can develop these qualities by working with a professional coach. The investment is well worth the reward: your ability to influence the future, your career and your personal-development capabilities.