3 Innovation Triggers: Fear, Fantasy & Frustration

3 Parts to Innovation

This is part of my TEDxUQ talk from Saturday.  The theme was Old Ideas, New World.  I used different examples in the talk (which I’ll post here as soon as it’s available), but this should give you an idea of the key themes.

The Three Parts of Innovation

When I posted on Facebook that I was going to give a talk here, Rick DeWitt, my oldest friend, replied – saying:

For me, the most important thing you’ve taught me about innovation is that it is 
(1) a new idea,
(2) that adds value, and
(3) actually happens (becomes reality).

That test really separates mere ideas from actual innovations.

Rick is right – those are the three things that we need to innovate.  If we only have two out of the three things, then we have an innovation trigger.

3 Parts to Innovation


All three parts of that definition are important.  Most of us get the new idea part – although even that has a twist.  It turns out that just combining old ideas in a new way counts as a new idea – it’s a broader category than we often think.  But the biggest innovation mistake that I run across is thinking that it’s only about new ideas.  It’s not.

We also have to execute our ideas.  It’s not enough to have the ideas – we need to make them real.  We have to figure out how to get them out of our heads, where they’re perfect, and into the messy, unpredictable world that we live in.  Making ideas real is pretty challenging, and we can’t innovate without this step.

But even that isn’t enough – we also have to create value.  And not just for ourselves, but mainly for others.  This means that we have to solve problems – this is what unlocks value for people.

Trigger #1: Fear

If we’re missing new ideas, then we have the first innovation trigger: fear.


This trigger happens when we have systems for doing things that are real, and they create value for people – but then the environment changes.  At this point, the old ways stop working – and if we don’t have new ideas, then we we’re left with fear.

This can be a powerful innovation trigger.  When things stop working, we’re often facing an existential threat.  Then we have to innovate or we won’t survive.  That’s pretty frightening.

IBM has gone through this a few times now.  In the 1970s, they were one of the most dominant companies in the world – their mainframes were everywhere.  Then, technological innovation changed their environment – and it became apparent that personal computers would become big.  This forced IBM to innovate their business model – a transition that most of their competitors in the mainframe business failed to make.

Then they had to do it all again in late 90s – the internet shifted their environment once more, and they moved from selling hardware to selling software, services and consulting.

Both of those shifts were motivated by fear.  And the outcomes included several big management innovations, like their use of innovation jams, along with their business model innovations.

Trigger #2: Fantasy

If we have new ideas for solving a particular problem, but no way of making them real, then we have the second innovation trigger: fantasy.


Lots of people get stuck here.  They have the great idea, and they see the problem that it can solve, but they can’t make it real.

That requires work.

That’s where all inventors are when the start making their idea real.  Here is the prototype for the iPhone (via Clay Parker Jones):



At that point, it was nowhere near being an innovation.  They had a great idea, and they were working out how to make it real, but it wasn’t there yet.  It was still a fantasy.

Trigger #3: Frustration

The third trigger is tricky – you have a great new idea, and you’ve made it real.  But no one’s buying – you are missing the value that you create for people – this causes frustration.



This is the digital camera that Kodak invented in 1975:

If they invented the digital camera, why didn’t they end up dominating the market? They had solved a technical problem – how can use digital technology to take pictures?  But they still needed to figure out how to create value out of this idea.

This is part of the S-Curve problem – solving the technical problem is only the first step.  You then have to find the right business model to go with it.  This often takes longer than solving the technical problem did.  As Kodak failed to find the right value to unlock with their digital camera, they ended up missing the market entirely.

When Chester Carlson invented the process of xerography, it still took him and the Haloid Photgraphy Company 20 years to find the right business model – to figure out how to best provide value for people.

This can be incredibly frustrating – and this frustration drives business model innovation.

The Three Innovation Triggers

The three Fs are where innovation usually starts.  Fantasy is where say “what if…?”, frustration starts with “that’s interesting…” and fear is where we say “oh-oh.”  All three of those sentiments can drive us to discover new ideas – but to innovate you need all three things: your great new idea, you have to make it real, and you have to unlock value for people.

Once you do that, then you have a chance to change to the world.

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.

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