Is there a purity test for innovators?

Article Highlights

  • David Shaywitz – “As you grow up, you go down one of two paths – become an innovator, or become a jobber.”

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  • Some of the most creative and disruptive ideas, has been developed by individuals who started off as jobbers.

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  • Innovation may be harder to realize in some environments but that just makes it all the more important to look.

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  • If there is, in effect, a purity test for innovators, we’ll be leaving a lot of value on the table.

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Silicon Valley is based on idea of cultivating a culture of entrepreneurship - we now raise kids to think they should go out and change the world (perhaps even before, or instead of, going to college).  Work - especially entrepreneurship - is viewed as an opportunity to author your own life, and large companies (and middle managers) are eager to grab hold of this concept, and this meme

At the same time, it turns out that many people (I call them "jobbers") go to work - by choice, it seems - not to change the world, but to put in a good day's effort, to get paid fairly, and to go home.  This quaint mindset is likely shared by most CEOs, and is probably responsible for the majority of industrial accomplishment.

The convenient assumption, of course, is that as you grow up, you go down one of two paths - become an innovator, and come up with brilliant new disruptive ideas, or become a jobber, and dutifully execute.

The small problem with this tidy model: while some of our most remarkable entrepreneurs and business innovators grew up knowing they wanted to pursue original ideas ("Formative From Birth" - FFBs), an awful lot of innovation in the world, including some of the most creative and disruptive ideas, has been developed by individuals ("Beyond Traditional - BTs) who started off as jobbers, then at some point along the way found themselves pursuing, with passion, a grander ambition.   On the other hand, many who start on the FFB track ultimately wind up creating little value (at least as measured by payment for services rendered or goods sold).

Arguably, the BT folks, the ones who at some point recognize an intrinsic passion and aptitude for entrepreneurship, may be more likely to be successful because they actually understand how grown-up companies really work, and may be more grounded by their life experiences. 

I worry a lot about the BTs, because it seems that popular culture is increasingly consolidating around a disappointingly rigid idea - really, a coarse caricature- of what "real" innovation, and "real" innovators, look like - i.e.  FFBs, hunched over an iPad at  Philz, not BTs, staring at a PC in the midst of some corporate cubicle farm or a small family business.   FFBs are glamorized as "authentic," while BTs risk being regarded as poseurs.

The increasingly purist, exclusionary view of innovation inevitably will underestimate - significantly - the broader innovative potential in our nation, in our people, and in our companies, that might be awakened and cultivated.

Admittedly, innovation may be harder to realize in some environments than in others - few places are as hospitable to new ideas, and creative thinkers, as the sun-drenched streets of Palo Alto - but that just makes it all the more important to look.

Ultimately, if there is, in effect, a purity test for innovators, we'll be leaving a lot of value on the table - just the sort of missed opportunity enterprising minds of all stripes - FFBs and BTs alike - strive so intensively to avoid.

David Shaywitz is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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