How I Almost Blew My Big Chance by Forgetting Everything I Know About Innovation

the next google

Back in May, Nilofer Merchant connected me up with her editor Sarah at Harvard Business Review Blogs, suggesting to her that I’d be a good addition to the stable there.  After a couple of discussions, Sarah and I agreed that it would be good to work together.  We discussed a couple of ideas for posts, and then it was over to me to start writing.

And then,


So that wasn’t so good.

I’d run straight into The Resistance.  Or the lizard brain.  Seth Godin says:

Why is it so difficult to do what we say we’re going to do?

The lizard brain.

Or as Steven Pressfield describes it, the resistance. The resistance is the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise. The resistance is writer’s block and putting jitters and every project that ever shipped late because people couldn’t stay on the same page long enough to get something out the door.

The resistance grows in strength as we get closer to shipping, as we get closer to an insight, as we get closer to the truth of what we really want. That’s because the lizard hates change and achievement and risk.

All of that was going on.  And, just as importantly, I had forgotten everything that I know about innovation.

A few things combined to snap me out of it.

First, at the BIIG Conference, Alex Roberts and Jane Treadway from DesignGov gave a great talk, including this piece of advice:

Evolve to perfect instead of requiring perfection from the start.

Second, I killed my talk at the conference, which reminded me that I do know a few things about innovation.

Finally, Sarah reminded me that she is an editor, so she’s used to editing, and that I should send her something as a starting point.

Make something, see what works, then iterate until it gets good.  That’s what I teach all the time, and that’s what I had to do here.  So, finally, I did.  I wrote one crappy post and sent it off.  And then, once I had done that, I had two really good ideas in short succession, and wrote those up over the weekend and sent those off too.

And so, I was finally off – and my first posts at HBR Blogs went up this month.

the next google


Here are some of the the things that I was reminded of by going through this process:

  • Build, Measure, Learn.  Innovation is based on experimenting.  I was waiting to write a perfect post before I sent it off to Sarah.  That hardly ever works.  That’s what the quote from Alex and Jane is all about – things get good when we build something, learn, and iterate.  I had to get that first lousy post out of the way, think about what worked and what didn’t, then do the next one.  Each one that I’ve written has gotten better.
  • You can’t recognise the great ideas in advance.  That’s the point that Hugh MacLeod is making in the cartoon above – right now, the next Google looks just like every other new, struggling startup. Paul Graham says:

    Whereas if you want to start a startup, you’re probably going to have to think of something fairly novel. A startup has to make something it can deliver to a large market, and ideas of that type are so valuable that all the obvious ones are already taken.

    It’s the same with writing. Sometimes I know in advance that a post will turn out well, but most of the time, I’ve got no idea when I start writing. Right now, I have no idea if this post will work. I just have to work it out and see…

  • You have to be vulnerable to innovate.  The lizard brain and The Resistance are both expressions of the fear of failure.  To do anything worthwhile, we have to face up to this fear.  That’s what was holding me back.  Experimenting and iterating is one good way to get around this problem. Anne Lamott says:

    Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.

    If you want a guide to working through The Resistance, her book Bird by Bird is a great resource, as are those by Godin and Pressfield.

There’s one other interesting point here – I wasn’t even doing anything that novel.  Hundreds of people have written posts for HBR Blogs.  I’m honoured to have the opportunity, but I’m certainly not the first in the world to do this.  It shows that benchmarking can be just as painful as coming up with something completely new.

So why not come up with something completely new?

There’s one last lesson here: I know all of these lessons already – I teach them all the time in my classes, for crying out loud.  This is another example of The Knowing-Doing Gap. 

I’ll finish by reminding myself (and you) of something that I’ve always known: experimenting is the best way to be more innovative.  I guess it’s a lesson I need to learn and re-learn.  I’m hopeful that telling you about it might help you avoid the same trap – or at least get out of it more quickly than I did.


I’m not going to repost the HBR posts here, but I’ll add in links at the end of regular posts when they go up so that you can find them if you don’t run across them through other means.

The first post is Why Your Innovation Contest Won’t Work.  It looks at a a case study where a CEO tries to increase innovation in his firm by offering a large cash prize.  I just caught up with my friend Warwick last week, and as we feared, the outcomes weren’t great.  Here’s one idea that might work better.

The second post is Hierarchy is Overrated.  It talks about the advantages of flat organisations, and where this type of organisational structure will be most effective.

Finally, the cartoon is from Hugh MacLeod’s Daily Newsletter – subscribing to it is worthwhile.


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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.

9 thoughts on “How I Almost Blew My Big Chance by Forgetting Everything I Know About Innovation

  1. Tim, it sounds to me that teacher had to become a student.
    Innovation and creativity are very easy topics to talk about. It is a lot harder to be creative in order to innovate something. It is not lost on me that most innovation experts seem to create very little with all of their wisdom and expertise.

    I’ve published over 250 innovation articles going back to the mid 1990s working with editors in magazines mostly overseas.
    Nothing happens until you have an idea….that is the hard work….looking for an insight or trigger to see something that is different or a unique perspective on something.
    Once you have that, it is easy to flesh it out into an article. And as you say, you can keep enhancing the measure, cutting useless words, removing the passive words, and so on.
    The one benefit of working with an editor ……most give you a deadline.
    That helps.

    An issue I do see with a lot of the blogs is that most people do not have original ideas. I think people confuse opinions and originality. Too many focus on….. “here is what I want to say….” rather than “here is something to prompt your thinking”.

    • Thanks Ed. There is a fair bit of noise these days – that’s why we need good filters. I’d say that there are a few benefits to working with a good editor – I’ve really enjoyed the process so far.

  2. Tim that was really helpful. I often have this problem, I get a great opportunity and I just freeze up at the idea of starting, because I want it to be perfect. I don’t want to do it if I need to redo it, but what you said is exactly right. It will not be perfect. Just start. Just do it. Keep doing it.

    As you may be aware I have been given a great opportunity from iLab, I have all the resources I need at my disposal. All I need to do is do it, but I am scared that I can’t and it will not be good enough when I do.

    The truth is that the first time it won’t be, but as you mentioned “Evolve to perfect instead of requiring perfection from the start.”

    I should print that out and put it on my wall, or as my background picture to help me work through lizard brain.

    Great post, as always but I really related to this one.

    • Glad it was useful Chris. I know a lot of people that tend to overthink things, and I’m definitely one of them, so I thought that people might be able to relate to this one…

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