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Myth of Innovation: Light Bulbs Have Cords

I was thinking about the icon that most of us use to represent innovation: the light bulb. We portray it as the light bulb only, sometimes cartooned-up, mostly lit with a warm yellow glow, floating in space, and not connected to anything. It’s as if an idea by itself causes the bulb to glow. It’s a lie. Light bulbs need a cord or a power source to help emit that warm amber glow.

Innovations Have Tethers

It is rare that innovations within companies are totally untethered. Innovations are about more than the idea itself, although the idea is paramount. Innovations usually rely upon some power source, generally resources such as capital, funding, people but sometimes access, networks, channels or partnerships. If you work in a company, this is easy to understand. Your company will allocate resources to the best ideas that drive strategy execution. If you are running a start-up, for that matter, you know this very well; unless you are wealthy enough to play with your money. Congrats, but for the rest of us;


From now on, the icon for innovation, the light bulb, should always show the cord. Without it, innovators may misread the tea leaves and believe that they have total freedom.


Mind-Freedom, Not Total Freedom

The light bulb senza a power source conveys that you are free to do what you want, when you want, how you want. The truth is that innovation offers a great deal of freedom; mind-freedom. Mind-freedom is to think as big as you can, to innovate where others have not gone, to look at the world in your unique way. Behold mind-freedom, it is a powerful elixir. Often, innovation is the only place you can find mind-freedom in the workplace. All other parts of work are formatted, form-filling, stay-in-the box kind of work.

In innovation, however, you are not totally free, there are constraints within which you must live. If you are the benefactor of a company’s brand, image, funds, people or reputation then you have been given certain resources that you would not have if you were out on your own. Generally, companies give innovators a strategic frame in which to innovative along with resources, even though the resources they are often starved. These frames are vast in their size and scope and leave a great expanse in which to play, limited only by people’s imagination. For example, if a company frames their innovation as brand-driven core products, that is an immense space, even for small companies. If you find that the frame and resources are disrupting your innovation mojo, you have a few choices:

  1. Do nothing [I doubt you will choose this because you came to this blog for a reason.]

  2. Show cause for change, create great innovation results to negotiate why the frame needs to be "re-Framed."

  3. Recognize that the frame is fine, but it is the management systems around the frame that are limiting you. In that case, work with the system owner to re-engineer it to make it more innovation friendly.

  4. Take your ideas and go on the road by forming a start-up.

If you take the latter, beware, all light bulbs have a power source. Venture capital, private equity, angel investors, even your wealthy aunt will come with a cord attached.

Dejected & Peeved Over a Company Betrayal

I once coached a talented, young creative who was dismayed when her company limited her moves for positioning an innovation on their website. Stacy had all the hallmarks of a great innovator: passion, driven, savvy, and willing to die for her idea. Stacy was working with an innovation team on a new product. Her idea was to post the innovation in an unconventional, slightly risqué way on the company’s website to get traffic for sales. After all, all news is good news. The buttoned-down company and the web-gods had other ideas and would not stretch their brand image to fit Stacy’s provocative pitch. Stacy was incensed and sure that the company did not understand the genius of the innovation or, for that matter, innovation itself. Stacy came to me with a look of betrayal on her face. “The company asked me to innovate; then they put up all these rules that ruin your ideas.” Let’s agree that the history of innovation is rife with examples where companies put up too many rules that kill innovations, but this was not one of them.

Companies need to protect their brand, image, and reputation by common sense measures that don’t allow each innovation to bet the farm. Stacy and I discussed the give and take of the situation. What was she getting by innovating within this company? The light bulb cord entailed:

  • a compelling strategic space to innovate, one that fires her imagination

  • a small budget for the innovation

  • a team of people for the innovation

  • time to work on the innovation

  • potentially allowing space (if using the approved protocol) on the highly trafficked branded website so that people could find the innovation

  • cache from the reputation of the company that the innovation by itself would not have.

Don’t Pull the Cord; They Negotiate It

If Stacy and her team could not live with what the company was offering, they would have to pull the cord and go elsewhere. To find another power source, with all that new courtship would entail is an arduous task, one that may take away for the energy they were putting into their innovation. My advice to Stacy: Negotiate the cord.

At the end of the light bulb there is a cord that brings a source of power; be it money, people, access or other privileges. Great company innovators understand the “to and from” their company offers for their innovation, and they find an acceptable existence in negotiating the terms.

I suggest there are very few innovation hills to die on, better to negotiate the cord.

This does not mean selling out; it means making your innovation work. It’s never easy. Great innovators work to make sure that their idea goes forward without giving up at the first obstacle, and they know everything is a negotiation. If they have a sound innovation and a good innovation track record, they can remove roadblocks, reframe, or negotiate new terms.

Over to You

We have misled the public with light bulbs that are lit solely by great ideas. They also need a power source; some see this as a tether. I see the cord for what it is, first an offering from your company, then a negotiation. If our future icons for innovation is a light bulb with a cord, there could be an understanding that innovation is not totally free but still worth doing because it has mind-freedom, it is rewarding and, need I say; it is fun. In acknowledging and negotiating the cord, great innovations are possible.

Dr. Nancy Tennant for the INNOVATION UNIVERSE

©2017 Nancy Tennant. All Rights Reserved.

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