7 Traps Innovators Avoid

Granted, the title isn’t as warm and fuzzy as 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,

but when the topic is innovation, you have to expect that different rules apply.

While innovators might follow vastly different paths to success, most of them have mastered the ability to avoid these 7 creativity sucking traps:

1. The INSIDE-THE-BOX trap

Many innovations follow the Swiss Army Knife formula of success. The Swiss Army Knife, as you know, contains more than a knife blade. In fact, the Wegner company set a world record for putting 87 tools on one knife! You could say this is the type of innovation is inside-the-box…a very, very big, ever-expanding box. The Wegner Company kept adding features to the “pocket” knife until it became the size of a coffee table.

But George de Mestra, also Swiss, practiced outside-the-box innovation. Upon returning from a hunting trip in the Swiss Alps with his dogs in 1941. Noticing how burrs clung to the fur of his dogs and his own pant legs, Mestra examined the seemingly simple burr under a magnifying glass to discover a series of “hooks” that easily caught on clothing, hair, etc. Years later, Mestra patented his invention as Velcro, something you use today to secure items from tent flaps to tennis shoes.

There’s nothing wrong with inside-the-box innovation that adds value to an existing idea. But outside-the-box innovation is radical, converting problems into potential products.

2. The STINKIN’-THINKIN’ trap

Looking at his first Social Security check, Harlen realized that he’d lived 65 years without ever really succeeding. He’d dropped out of school as a boy, worked countless jobs that he hated such as farm hand, streetcar conductor, and Army private. As he reached retirement age, Harlen found himself working as a cook and dishwasher in a small-town restaurant. At that point, Harlen could have taken the $105 check from the government and lived out a quiet existence until he took his last breath. But Harlen didn’t. He quelled the negative thinking that had ruled the first 65 years of his life, and that’s when Colonel Harland David Sanders invested in himself and his own business, something we know today as Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC.

Innovators realize that positive result aren’t birthed from self-defeating thoughts.

3. The DWELLING-ON-FAILURES trap

Abe went to war as a Captain in the Army, and he returned a private. He then entered private enterprise where he also failed. After passing the BAR, he practiced as a lawyer, but still he barely eked out a living. Disgusted, he decided to make a run as a politician. He was defeated in his first run for the legislature, again defeated to win his party’s nomination for congress, defeated even as the commissioner of the General Land Office, defeated in two unsuccessful bids for the Senate, and defeated in his bid for the vice-presidency. 

He could have pronounced himself a failure and died in anonymity. But he didn’t. Instead of dwelling on his many failures, Abraham Lincoln chose to hold onto each experience as a learning opportunity that he took with him along the way to become one of the most highly regarded American presidents in history.

A reporter asked Thomas Edison how it felt to fail 1,000 times before inventing the first incandescent light bulb. Edison famously replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Innovators focus on the learning, not the failures.

4. The LISTENING-TO-YOUR-CRITICS trap

As great as an innovator/inventor as Thomas Edison was, he didn’t always have an eye—or ear—for talent. Wishing to capitalize on his invention of sound recordings, Edison invited a piano player into his recording studio. But only moments into the recording, Edison held up his hands to stop the recording, yelling at the large man on the piano bench, “Who told you you’re a piano player?!” The man who was pounding on the keyboard complied, and he walked out of the studio. But not into obscurity. Because the man he told to stop pounding on the piano was Sergei Rachmaninoff, a man who would be widely exulted as the best pianist of his day.

Innovators aren’t interested in pleasing 100% of the population. Or even 51%. Instead of listening to critics, innovators tap their feet to the rhythm of their own music.

5. The ALL-THINGS-TO-ALL-PEOPLE trap

Consider the unusual versatility of Jeremy Lundin. Lundin, I’m sure you recall, was the famous rock star turned astronaut turned NASCAR driver turned professional golfer turned U.S. Senator. Having a hard time placing Lundin? Of course you are, because I made him up. When you try to be all things to all people, you usually end up as nothing to everyone. You dilute your brilliance by spreading yourself too thin, or by making fame and popularity your goal.

Innovators have a sweet spot. And they maximize that sweet spot. Instead of trying to please the masses, they seek mastery in a narrowly defined band of expertise. All things? No, just one thing exceeding well. To all people? No, they apply their genius to satisfy themselves.

6. The PROCRASTINATION trap 

Bill Gates was a pretty average kid…until he discovered the world of computing. But he was reasonable, too. So he finished high school, entered college pursuing a computer science degree, and then took a low paying job in an IT department where he learned his craft alongside a brilliant Chief Information Officer who showed him the ropes. Except NO, that’s not what Gates did. Rather, he slept through many high school classes because most nights he climbed out his bedroom window and worked from dusk to dawn on a computer at a local university! Gates succeeded because he was smart and passion-driven. And more importantly, Gates didn’t start his dream tomorrow. He started it now.

Innovators start today, not tomorrow.

7. The SAYING-YES-TO-EVERYTHING trap.

In 1998, Steve Jobs reduced the number of Apple products from 350 to just 10. Jobs explained it this way: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying “no” to 1,000 things.

Innovators aren’t shy when it comes to saying NO. You shouldn’t be either.

Summary

For kicks, read the 7 points again. They apply to innovators, don’t they? Yes. And they also apply to anyone who wishes to become excellent.

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