Successful Innovation is a Matter of Willpower

By Gijs Van Wulfen

In his book David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell quotes the psychologist Jordan Peterson who argues that innovators and revolutionaries tend to have a very particular mix of personality traits. “Innovators have to be open. They have to be able to imagine things that others cannot and to be willing to challenge their own preconceptions. They also need to be conscientious. An innovator who has brilliant ideas but lacks the discipline to carry them out is merely a dreamer. That, too, is obvious. But crucially, innovators need to be disagreeable. They are people willing to take social risks – to do things that others might disapprove of.”

I recognize these words so much in the daily practice of an innovator, having a new business and looking for a speedy way to develop a new product or service and launch it to the market.

Innovation does not stop at the first “no;” that’s the moment it really starts.

When you present your idea or new business case and get a “go ahead” from your management, your financers or your partners, it’s not the end of your journey. It’s only the start of it. When you share your innovative idea with others in the development, you will probably get a lot of negative reactions like:

1.  No, it’s always done this way...

2.  No, customers won’t like that!

3.  No, we don’t have time for this…

4.  No, it’s not possible...

5.  No, it's too expensive!

6.  No, let’s be realistic…

7.  No, that’s not logical…

8.  No, we need to do more research…

9.  No, there's no budget…

10.  No, the finance department won’t agree...

11. No, the market is not ready yet...

12. No, it might work in other places but not here...

13. No, that's way too risky...

14. No, it doesn't fit our strategy...

15. No, that’s for the future...

The single biggest obstacle in innovation is one small word: no. Real innovators turn the ‘nos’ into ‘yesses’ on their way, as innovation does not stop at the first no; that’s the moment it really starts. As an innovator you have to be prepared to do things others won’t approve of and don’t want to be bothered with. In 1928, it was the famous economist Joseph Schumpeter who wrote, “Successful innovation is a feat not of intellect but of will. Its difficulty consists in the resistance and uncertainties incident to doing what has not been done before.” Overcoming resistance and managing uncertainty is determining, according to Schumpeter, the innovation outcomes. I could not agree more with him!

Successful innovation is a feat not of intellect but of will.

A great example of great willpower is Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, the Swedish furniture retailer. Malcolm Gladwell mentions how he got started: “His great innovation was to realize that much of the cost of furniture was tied up in its assembly: putting the legs on the table not only costs money but also makes shipping the table really expensive. So he sold furniture that hadn’t been assembled, shipped it cheaply in flat boxes, and undersold all his competitors. In the mid-1950s however, Kamprad ran into trouble. Swedish furniture manufacturers launched a boycott against IKEA. They were angry about his low prices, and they stopped filling his orders. IKEA faced ruin. Desperate for a solution, Kamprad looked south and realized just across the Baltic Sea from Sweden was Poland, a country with much cheaper labor and plenty of wood. That’s Kamprad’s openness: few companies were outsourcing like that in the early 1960s. Then Kamprad focused his attention on making the Polish connection work. It wasn’t easy. Poland in the 1960s was a mess. It was a communist country. It had none of the infrastructure or machinery or trained workforce or legal protections of a Western country. But Kamprad pulled it off. ‘He is a micromanager,’ says Anders Aslund, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. ‘That’s why he succeeded where others failed. He went out to these unpleasant places, and made sure things worked. He’s this extremely stubborn character. That’s conscientiousness. But what was the most striking fact about Kamprad’s decision? It’s the year he went to Poland: 1961. The Berlin Wall was going up. The Cold War was at its peak. Within a year, East and West would come to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The equivalent today would be Walmart setting up shop in North Korea. Most people wouldn’t even think of doing business in the land of the enemy for fear of being branded a traitor. Not Kamprad. He didn’t care a whit for what others thought of him. That’s disagreeableness.’”

Wishing you lots of success on your innovation journey, turning ‘nos’ into ‘yesses’ on your way.

Gijs van Wulfen (1960, based in The Netherlands) is a recognized authority and keynote speaker on innovation and Design Thinking. He was chosen as one of the first LinkedIn Influencers and as of the end of 2015, over 280.000 people across the globe are following his notably engaging, prolific and insightful posts. In 2014 Gijs came number 6 in the international Top 40 Innovation Bloggers. For more information, visit his website here. (http://www.gijsvanwulfen.com/