Christopher Columbus as a Model for Innovators
I’ve had the chance to meet and speak with a lot of people who are interested in creating more innovation in their organizations. Some of them have been asked to lead an innovation effort, and some are just interested in becoming more innovative themselves.
Most understand that innovation isn’t an activity or a project, but few understand the amount of investment, work and change management required to sustain innovation beyond an initial attempt. In this way I think we can look to the past for figures who represent the challenges and opportunities that are presented to innovators. Perhaps no figure represents the highs and lows of innovation like Christopher Columbus. And few other figures demonstrate the consistency of purpose, dogged determination and singular focus that’s necessary for innovators to succeed.
We remember Columbus as the discoverer of the new world, when in reality, he was probably only the most celebrated. Clearly, there were people already in the new world, indigenous people. Also, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the Vikings discovered North America centuries before Columbus did. Yet it doesn’t really matter, and the same thing is true with innovation. Most innovators don’t discover something completely new. It’s often the case that others have discovered a product or solution but didn’t recognize its potential. Or, innovators import ideas and concepts from adjacent markets rather than attempting to create something entirely new. Good innovators understand how to celebrate a victory and how to create good publicity. Look no further than Steve Jobs or Christopher Columbus.
Seeing unexpected benefits
Beyond discovering the new world, we have to look at his original goals and what he declared as success. Columbus was perhaps not the best at setting goals – few believed he could sail all the way to the Indies – but he did wash up on what he called a “new world” and was smart enough to declare it a victory. In this Columbus was adaptable and able to help his clients see that the original intended goal was important, but so was what he found or created. In this there are lessons for innovators – set clear objectives, but be flexible and able to realize when you’ve found or created something that is valuable but unexpected. Also, realize that innovation, unlike the rest of the work in your organization, is unpredictable. Be prepared to recognize unexpected benefits. Columbus was able to turn a potential defeat – failure to reach the Indies – into a success. We innovators need to be able to present our innovation wins – even when they don’t match initial goals – as victories that allow us to keep innovating.
Columbus is important in another way – his determination. Columbus realized for all the acclaim that he had not achieved his original goals, and set out not once, not twice, but three more times on missions of discovery. He did not allow an initial failure to stymie his goals, but sought to learn and capitalize on the previous missions. We innovators need to learn that innovation will not always offer up the results we hoped for, but that’s no reason to stop trying. Simply incorporate what you’ve learned and try again.
Columbus also understood what many modern innovators fail to understand – the need for a sponsor who has big needs or big goals. Columbus talked with many monarchs about his goals to reach the Indies. The Spanish were interested because they were late to the trading game and needed new markets. They had recently united their country and were looking abroad for greater glory. Other monarchs and sponsors had turned Columbus away. Good innovators understand that a sponsor who has either vital challenges that must be overcome, or who has a big vision are vital to success.
Making the most of limited means
Columbus understood that even a committed sponsor like the Spanish could only offer him so much in terms of resources. He accepted what his sponsors could offer and made the most of it, rather than decide not to attempt the journey. As innovators we have to learn to live within limited means and resources, and demonstrate the benefits and value propositions. In subsequent exercises we can obtain more resources based on the success of the first mission, just as Columbus did.
Believing his vision
Columbus and the people of his day didn’t believe they would “sail off the edge of the world”. They knew the world was round. The people who rejected his vision simply felt that he could not sail to the Indies heading west because of the distance involved. If the western continents hadn’t existed, and Columbus had faced open ocean, the naysayers would have been right. But this points out another characteristic of innovators – the belief in their own vision and the ability to stretch their thinking beyond what is known to be “true”. The naysayers didn’t think there was any land between them and the Indies. Turns out that the naysayers were right about the distance, but wrong about other “facts”. These blindspots or “facts” that aren’t facts block many organizations from innovating, and require committed innovators to overcome.
Finally, Columbus was never really satisfied. After discovering the new world, claiming an entire continent for Spain, bringing back new insights, new discoveries and opening the door to colonization and the eventual wealth of Spain in gold and silver, Columbus remained a discoverer. He wanted more, he consistently went further. We as innovators need to instill this passion in ourselves, but more importantly in our companies. Too many firms believe that they must change, but when they make a change they can then rest on their laurels. The competitive markets are moving much too quickly and consistently to allow that. Our firms must be never satisfied, which means our innovators must be able to constantly and consistently innovate.
Columbus wasn’t perfect. He didn’t arrive at his original goal, and probably didn’t discover the new world. But his persistence, his ability to make the most of limited means, his ability to recognize and recruit sponsors, his ability to trust his vision and overcome the doubters, and his openness and ability to recognize success make him a model for modern innovators.
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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.
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