Innovation: Do What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are

One of the key points that Peter Sims makes in Little Bets is that if you wait until your idea is perfect before you act on it, your chances of success are greatly reduced. This means that if you are trying to innovate, you have to be able to work with what you have right now.

When I worked at the radio station, we used to joke about the technical manager that fixed the control board using “a piece of string, a bandaid and a fish” – though I’m still a bit fuzzy on the role of the fish. In New Zealand, this spirit is captured by Number 8 Wire – the idea that anything can be fixed with a bit of barbed wire combined with Kiwi ingenuity.

Here’s another example from the surprisingly good and very well written book The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman by Karen Karbo:

… Bob Dylan, another master of self-invention tried once to explain his success: “I was just doing what I could with what I had where I was.” He was not just making it up as he went along; he was also using everything he stumbled upon. He was both weaving the rope and climbing it at the same time.
And so was Coco Chanel.

Most of us, when we land upon a great idea, a lifesaving idea, immediately turn it into our baby. And like our real-life babies, we only want the best for it. We love it. We coddle it. It’s our great idea, and who knows when we might have another one! We want to implement it at the right time with the best materials possible. We want the stars to be right.

But Chanel’s chutzpah dictated the opposite. She was going to reinvent the female wardrobe, and she was going to do it now with whatever was at hand.

Coco Chanel
Coco Chanel Pictures

Here are some key points:

  • “Both weaving the rope and climbing it at the same time” is a great metaphor for innovation. It captures the imaginative leap that you have to make to execute a new idea. Even though new innovations usually come from connecting ideas that already exist, we’re still making this leap.
  • Ideas actually are a bit like babies: this is a metaphor that I’ve used before myself. We can think of ideas as rare and precious, like one of our babies, or like an albatross chick. Or, we can think of them as numerous, like salmon eggs, where the key issue isn’t nurturing our single idea, but rather it is to figure out which idea is the good one.
  • Finally, I love the just-get-to-work attitudes shown by both Dylan and Chanel. Sims is right in saying that waiting too long to execute an idea leads to failure. You can’t wait for permission to innovate. The way to find the good ideas is to try them out right now, using whatever resources you have available.

The odds were heavily stacked against Coco Chanel when she started out. And yet she really did reinvent women’s clothing (and she’d make a terrific topic for an Ada Lovelace Day post, which everyone should be thinking about now). She did it by having a series of great ideas (and a few that weren’t so good), and more importantly, by executing them to see which ones really were great.

That’s innovation – doing what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

8 thoughts on “Innovation: Do What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are

  1. Hi Tim,

    I also created a business model. (I’m sure there were other high-end professional tutors at the time I started, but neither I nor anyone I knew was aware of them, so functionally I was the pioneer.) I like to say I just kinda fell into it (nice folksy story, less pretentious), but the reality is I did *everything*. My view is that you have to have one bedrock idea at the center–ie, I will provide the best tutoring in the most time-efficient manner. That can’t change. But everything else can, and will, change, perhaps radically.

    Right now I’m trying to break into a new market NYC, where I have the disadvantages of a crowded market, my anonymity, and my limited time there (only 2 months a year). So when people ask me if A or B is a better way to drum up business, I probably look at them like they’re slightly crazy. Of course it’s both. Now there are limits–if I had 50 potential marketing strategies I couldn’t follow up on all of them. But if I had to limit myself to say, 10, I wouldn’t waste a lot of time figuring out whether a certain one made the cut. The unknowables are too large to figure that out, anyway. You’re much better served by keeping your core product and then firing away at full intensity to make it work.

  2. These are the things which can never be said enough. Clearly, we can’t let the pendulum swing too far opposite perfection and expect good results, but ideas never realized are little more than dreams.

    Weave the rope and climb it. Make sure everyone has at least a basic understanding of how to weave and climb. Then see which direction we’re headed and collaboratively figure out what’s needed – more help climbing or weaving?

    Ideas are like babies, but babies only really need food, shelter, and love. They don’t need gilded strollers, brand name clothing, silver-tongued childcare consultants. We feed the idea, protect it from harm, and love it. Anything else is a nice-to-have.

    Not sure where I came across this, but it’s written directly beneath ye olde “Innovation Funnel” on my cubicle wall…

    1. Go make something happen.
    2. Do work you’re proud of.
    3. Treat people with respect.
    4. Make big promises & keep them.
    5. SHIP IT.

  3. Thanks for the comment Peter. You’ve done a great job of experimenting around the edges, and I think you’re right about the unknowables. Good luck with the NY venture!

  4. Tim: great post! This idea is behind so many “good things” that area part of the open scholarship movement. An underlying essential to the idea that there is value in getting ideas “out there” is in that only then do they have a chance to make difference. Not waiting until they are fully baked means rather is room for others to see ways to add, revise,& remix them. And ultimately it’s an expression of faith in oneself and one’s colleagues that they will find vale or make greater value in the thing you’ve shared.

    Good on ya, mate!


  5. Glad it rings true Phil! All the points that you raise are why collaborating is good – it’s particularly good for making ideas better…

  6. I remember one episode of “The Dog Whisperer” on NatGeo channel, where Cesar the host mention one of his basic principles in disciplining a dog; “work with what you have”. While this is not something new, I think in most of the time people tends to forgot about it or got confused on how to apply it.

    Thanks for explaining more about this subject, and FYI your article ranked good on Google search for “work with what you have” term.

Comments are closed.