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Ideas Are Not Enough

Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. Thomas Edison said it nearly a century ago. Few listened. We’ve been researchers in the field of innovation for several years now. We have shelves full of books on the topic. Interestingly, the vast preponderance of these books is about that 1% of the job — the front-end of the innovation process. The front end is about creativity, discovery, and breathtaking new ideas.

Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. Thomas Edison said it nearly a century ago. Few listened.

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We’ve been researchers in the field of innovation for several years now. We have shelves full of books on the topic. Interestingly, the vast preponderance of these books is about that 1% of the job — the front-end of the innovation process. The front end is about creativity, discovery, and breathtaking new ideas.

Stories about the birth of breakthrough ideas can make for juicy reading, and lie at the core of many best selling business books. A classic, The Innovator’s Dilemma (Clayton Christensen) helps readers understand how to recognize ideas that have the potential to disrupt existing markets. More recent popular books also focus on ideas. Blue Ocean Strategy (Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne) offers a structured approach for identifying ideas for businesses that have little or no direct competition. The Medici Effect (Frans Johansson) shows how creative ideas often follow from unusual combinations of experience, cultures, and scientific fields.

What of the back-end? The back-end is about converting ideas to life. It is about organization building, technical development, and commercialization. It is about management.

The front may be saucy, but the back end is meaty. Even with a great idea in hand, building a new business, particularly one inside an existing organization, is a challenge like no other. Leaders face decisions loaded with contradiction and paradox each step of the way. If you can master it, you’ve mastered the top-level course in general management. You are an extraordinary executive.

And still, it is hard to get people interested. When we give executive seminars on innovation, we typically spend only one-fourth of our time on the front-end. Yet, that is always the part of our program that generates the most energy.

The front end sizzles with sex appeal. The back end labors and sweats.

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There is an innovation mythology at work here. The magical moment in the innovation myth is always the light-bulb moment. It is that sudden “Eureka!” when our hero, usually brilliant but underappreciated, suddenly sees a new possibility. Subscribers to the innovation myth idolize the idea person. The boss clever enough to transform the idea into a profitable business is given no more respect than the kicker who trots onto the field for the perfunctory point-after-touchdown.

No doubt that Apple has some extraordinarily creative idea folks. They have designed extraordinary new products. But could it be that there is just a tad more to the story?

And consider the woeful tales of ideas born within companies that stumble and watch a rival copy the idea and succeed. How do you react? With respect for the managers at the rival? If so, you are unusual. The more common perspective is that the innovator is a tragic hero cheated of a just reward, the innovating company is a bumbling fool, and the rival is the evil opportunist.

People naturally laud inspiration; condescend to perspiration.

Don’t get us wrong. It is as obvious to us as it is to you that an innovation journey never gets started without a compelling vision. But in any great innovation story, the idea is only Chapter One.

Yes, ideas are crucial. Yes, brainstorming is fun. Yes, creativity is glam. And yes, there is no day-away-from-the-office that is an easier sell than one focused on nothing but coming up with groundbreaking ideas for redirecting a business.

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We’ve seen many such “innovation days.” But we’ve seen much less in the way of constructive follow-up.

Edison also quipped: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in coveralls and looks like work.” Our capacity to innovate will rise dramatically when overalls become cutting edge fashion.