Why Innovating Means Eliminating Much Of What We Have Just Created

It may seem like a waste of time or a step backwards, but to be truly innovative, you have to subtract from your big ideas to add to their strength.

It’s common knowledge that to be innovative, we must first explore, play, and brainstorm. But the second part of the process is more surprising.

True innovation also comes from eliminating, or as Steve Jobs put it, saying no to thousands of ideas so we can say yes to one really great one.

Such a task takes discipline, but with these four steps, you might just be able to come up with something truly innovative:

1. Flare and Focus

To flare is to expand your ideas and explore diverse possibilities, while focusing is about eliminating the nonessential ideas—even really good ones. To breathe life into the ideas that really matter, you must become a disciplined editor.

2. Be the Chief Editor

Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Square and the cofounder of Twitter, says his most important job is to be the Chief Editor of the company. He tries to create a culture where lots of people speak up with ideas and inputs. Then his job is to edit them into the one or two things they can really pursue.

We can see the result on the homepage of Square.com: They have one simple product and one simple “story.” Such simplicity never happens by default; it is always by design.

Reid Hoffman, the cofounder of LinkedIn, put it this way to me:

Entrepreneurs succeed when they say "yes" to the right project, at the right time, in the right way. To accomplish this, they have to be good at saying "no" to all their other ideas.

But when I talk about the role of subtraction in innovation, I’m not just talking about saying no to good ideas, although that is a start. This kind of elimination is about letting the new break through the old. It’s about letting the old way of thinking and doing things fall away in favor of the new visions.

3. Kill Your Darlings

Stephen King put it this way in his memoir On Writing:

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

Creation—true creation—changes something into something else, and in the process there is sacrifice. Innovation is rebirth: Something has to die in the process. It is like the mythical phoenix being reborn amid its own ashes. The old dies for the new to come forth. And accepting this takes courage, both raw and extraordinary.

4. Have the Courage to Create

Winston Churchill is known for many things, but creativity is rarely the first to come to mind. Still, he was a prolific writer years before he became known as the bulldog leader of the Second World War.

Churchill identified five stages in the creative process of writing a book. In the first stage, he said, it’s a plaything; by the last stage, he said, it’s a tyrant—we must have the courage to eliminate what is already good in order to bring forth what is great.

Just as some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance produced the most beautiful statues by chipping away parts of the marble block, the greatest innovators of today know that to bring forth more—more ideas, more insights, more innovations—is not to do more; it’s to subtract more.

Greg McKeown is the author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. He writes, teaches, and speaks around the world on the importance of living and leading as an Essentialist. He has spoken at companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Salesforce.com, and Twitter and is among the most popular bloggers for the Harvard Business Review and LinkedIn’s Influencers. He is the co-creator of the popular course, Designing Life, Essentially at Stanford University, and serves as a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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