There’s No Substitute for Doing the Work


The Problem with the Quick Fix

Here’s a question that I get too often: How can you build an innovation capability really fast?

I’ve told the story before of one typical example:

I had lunch a while back with two executives from an organisation that the Business School does a fair bit work with. They wanted to improve innovation and that’s what triggered our meeting.

We talked for a couple of hours about what was happening in their organisation. We talked about innovation as a process, the different forms of innovation, incremental versus radical – all the big topics. It seemed like we were making some progress towards figuring out how we might be able to work together.

Then at the very end of the lunch, the one that’s actually in charge of innovation there leaned over and said“Look, just tell me what piece of software to get and I’ll get it.”

The problem with questions like this is that they demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of how organisations work.  People want quick fixes – the problem with the quick fix is that it doesn’t exist.

 You Have to do the Work

Two posts this week make the same point in very different ways.  First, James Altucher takes on the idea that getting rich playing poker is easy.  The whole post is worth reading – Altucher recounts a conversation he has with a friend who wants to start earning money playing poker.  Altucher tells him that he has to learn scrabble first:

Me: It takes 1000s of hours to learn Scrabble. Every great poker player I know is a stone-cold killer. You have to kill or be killed. Most great poker players I know are great at all other games and have been since they were kids. A friend of mine spent 20 years becoming a chess master, another 5 becoming a great backgammon player, and it took him 10 years before he made a dime from poker. Now he’s made about $5 million from poker.


English: Quads Aces, to represent poker games.

10 years, and thousands of hours.  To win at poker, you have to do the work.

Seth Godin comes at it from a different angle though.  He says that you can’t just have the good parts of a job – you have to welcome the tough parts, because they’re what show that you’re doing something worthwhile.  This is his conclusion:

You don’t get to just do the good parts. Of course. In fact, you probably wouldn’t have chosen this path if it was guaranteed to work every time.

The implication of this might surprise you, though: when the tough parts come along, the rejection and the slog and the unfair bad breaks, it makes sense to welcome them. Instead of cursing or fearing the down moments, understand that they mean you’ve chosen reality, not some unsustainable fantasy. It means that you’re doing worthwhile, difficult work, not merely amusing yourself.

The very thing you’re seeking only exists because of the whole. We can’t deny the difficult parts, we have no choice but to embrace them.

The Difficult Parts of Innovation

If you want to innovate more, you do have to put in the work.  There is no quick fix.  Here are some of the difficult parts that you have to contend with:

  1. Every new idea doesn’t succeed.  You’ll have to live with some failures.
  2. You don’t get everything right the first time.  You have to experiment with your business model to figure out what works best.
  3. New ideas spread slowly. Once you figure out how to solve a particular problem, it takes at least the same amount of time to get people to adopt your solution.
  4. You have to build the innovation skills over time.  You need to give the people in your organisation the tools they need to innovate, the time to use them, and the opportunity.  Again, this doesn’t happen overnight.

These are all things that slow you down when you’re trying to innovate.  It’s part of what makes it hard to be more innovative.

The good news is that when you run into these obstacles, it means that you’re already ahead of everyone else that isn’t even trying.  Imagine how far ahead you’ll be once you get over them.


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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.

12 thoughts on “There’s No Substitute for Doing the Work

  1. Spot on, Tim! (And Seth!)

    We can actually lead a team through a great innovation project very quickly. We can deliver a great innovation workshop even quicker. But for sustained, consistently successful innovation to take root in an organization, it takes time, effort, and most of all, commitment of resources.

    In today’s instant everything society, that message doesn’t always resonate. However, the smartest business leaders get it, and that’s why their companies are among the most innovative and most profitable firms int he world.

    • Thanks David! Although Seth probably deserves more of the credit. And the Altucher post is my favourite out of all the ones I’ve linked to here.

      Glad to hear that the idea makes sense to you too.

  2. So, so true. I’ve been reading “Working Hard and Working Well” and the author talks about how it takes 3-5 years to truly become a high performing “managing to outcomes” nonprofit. I mentioned this, to my boss, as an aside, and she just looked at me like I was nuts, as if we could never plan something that far out (no matter we have endless strategic plans and meetings that routinely talk about implementing projects years from now). The discipline required is very hard. And yes, you must do the work. Starting today. Otherwise, why bother?

  3. Hi Tim – the “quick fix” mentality comes partly from the fact that innovation is not a vertically managed corporate function like sales or finance. Imagine a VP of Sales asking for the right software to bring in this quarter’s sales? Or a VP of Supply asking for the right software to increase line efficiency and reduce quality defects? Companies that succeed with innovation recognize that it’s really hard work, doesn’t happen overnight, and needs working at every single day to improve not only what they produce, but how they do it.

  4. I think quick fixes do exist…but they don’t last.

    Want innovation, sure shunt people for a 3 day off site and feed them free pizza and they will come up with some idea.

    But how to make innovation continuous? Now that requires work. Innovation is like a jigsaw, picture makes sense when all pieces are put together.

    It reminds me of people in gym doing crunches to get six pack abs, nopes can do…it requires much more work than that

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