In a complex and volatile world with rapid technological change, we must be creative and innovative to be at the top in business and in life. Or so it seems. Here is why innovation is overrated and what instead makes you succeed.
These days, innovation may well be the hottest buzzword in the business world. And, of course, it is desirable to be innovative rather than to be overtaken by events.
Some Historical Perspectives on Change
For thousands of years, we know that the world is in a constant state of flux. In the West, Heraclitus’ ‘You could not step twice into the same river’ and in the East Buddhas ‘Only change is permanent’ make this abundantly clear.
Both lived around 500 BC on different continents and came to the same conclusion. The status quo is always fleeting. Therefore, clinging to what is creates suffering. Instead, the wise should dwell in the now in a state of equanimity.
The philosophical insight into the nature of impermanence leads to a psycho-spiritual response of letting go.
This timeless realization will always work. Only that, one might argue, in our today’s world of information technology and hyperconnectivity, letting go has become more difficult. Hence, the rate of technological change and the ubiquitous availability of information and consumer goods overwhelms many.
And in business, may that be as a corporation or as a solopreneur, one has to adapt to the changes in technology to stay ahead of the curve.
The Austrian economist Schumpeter called this ‘creative destruction.’ In his theory of economic innovation, the creation of the new drives the business cycle. And in the process, something old becomes obliterated.
But what if we focus too exclusively on innovation? And what if innovation and creativity essentially differ from the hype?
To Start New Things is Great, But then What?
Understanding the difference and significance between starting and running a business has been a painful and liberating experience in my own story.
In personality tests, I come up as a holistic and creative thinker. And becoming an entrepreneur still during university days, I used to focus on the creative and conceptual. Sure, the term ‘strategic innovation’ has a cool ring to it.
But the reality of the daily activities in a start-up is much more akin to those of a caretaker than those of a perpetually creative thinker.
In your own company or as a solopreneur, you gotta do stuff. And then things break, and they need to get fixed. And the stuff that is working needs to be maintained.
Most activities are about maintaining stuff and not creating. In fact, you can only create new stuff if you have a solid basis.
So focussing too much on innovation misguides you when creating a sustainable business is your aim.
Learning that lesson provided me with tremendous stability and relaxation. Because focussing too much on what to change next can put you in a kind of anticipatory anxiety.
Compare that to the 1996 book by Intel founder Andy Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive. Seriously?
The title suggests that we have to innovate because of fear of the future. While this resonated well with the early days of the e-business hype, it does not sound like a desirable way of life.
Yet, that is what many innovation and creativity consultants preach.
Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell, authors of the important book (2020) ‘The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most’ call this ‘Turning Anxiety into a Product.’
Why Innovation is Overrated Is Easy to See in Your Personal Life
Let’s look at why innovation is overrated from a more fundamental level: our daily, personal lives.
If you list all activities of an average day of your life, ordinary activities take up a lot of time of the 24 hours in a day. There is a lot of sleeping, eating, brushing teeth, having showers, getting dressed, and sitting on the toilet.
Yes, life is an interesting endeavor. We take a long time to grow up, and by the time we get a glimpse of what this whole show is about, we are already in decline.
And then the game is actually about good maintenance so that we can do outrageous things as long as possible. And perhaps stay alive long enough until we have found the medical key to immortality or can at least upload our consciousness to the cloud?
Now, how is that for creativity?
When the Seemingly Outdated Still Works
Unlike online natives, I still remember the pre-Internet time and the first time accessing the Internet. What an amazing moment, instantaneous global connectivity. And it was immediately clear that the Internet would be the tool that would enable us entirely new life choices.
When I first got involved in making money on the Internet in the early 2000s, I came across Sitesell, an online business solution for solopreneurs founded in Canada by Ken Evoy. Sitesell provided education and all the online tools for solopreneurs at a moderate monthly subscription.
Now, I have never used Sitesell and therefore am not able to offer a detailed evaluation. But it seemed to provide a viable and trustworthy solution for making money on the Internet. And social proof and the traffic stats spoke for themselves.
I recently gleaned through my notes from almost 20 years ago came across a mention of Sitesell, so I looked up their website. And to my amazement, they were still there.
Lo and behold, in the age of high growth stock market sensations like e-commerce enabler Shopify and the leading web publishing platform Wix, Sitesell is still in the game.
Please have a look at their respective homepages below.
While Sitesell now offers a WordPress version, the design is still more or less the same. And in case you ever wondered where those stickmen icons that made people cringe in PowerPoint presentations 20 years ago. Look no further. They are hiding in the Sitesell sales page.
I am not suggesting that Sitesell is a better application compared to Shopify and Wix. It is not even a fair comparison. Both Shopify and Wix are in a completely different league in terms of funding, and they have thousands of staff. And perhaps Sitesell will get taken over by events in the future.
All I am saying is by simply plugging away and obviously producing something that works; they managed to stay in the game.
Success = Idea x Execution
In every business, there is an idea, and there is execution. The greatest idea without execution is worth nothing. But a lame idea or even just copying with excellent execution can be worth a lot. Or how could it possibly be that franchising is a booming business?
The lesson here is if you stick to your niche and produce consistent work, you can thrive. And you don’t have to revamp, disrupt, or reinvent yourself the moment the latest hype is around. You can succeed despite all hype about the new and fear of obliteration.
Why Innovation is Overrated? Because too Much Focus on Innovation is a Distraction
There is an irony in the digital revolution: Focusing on the shiny and the new, we tend to disregard the maintenance of systems, ensuring ongoing up-time and functionality.
And we may overlook that in the name of productivity optimization, we use additional apps that create more work than making our lives easier. I happily confess that I so enjoy managing my tasks with a crafty pen on paper. Using this evergreen technology seems to engage my brain in a whole different way than keying tasks into a note-taking app on my phone.
So, in a world full of self-optimization apps, how do you explain the legendary moleskin notebooks and calendars’ continued success?
How can it be that ultra-prolific bestselling writer James Patterson doesn’t even use a computer for his writing?
And hey, talking about it, how about email marketing, which has been prophetized a place in history’s dustbin for years? Yes, email marketing has changed due to the rise of social media and general user adaptation, but it remains effective.
The point here is, innovation for the sake of innovation has no benefits and can be outright patronizing.
Shift Your Focus from Growth To Stability
The central tenet in the aforementioned ‘Innovation Delusion‘ by Vinsel and Russell is today’s paradoxical view of maintenance:
Keeping stuff in shape and functioning is indispensable and, at the same time, held in low regard. And this is a cruel irony, they say, ‘since maintenance is the key to ensuring that technology’s benefits are felt in their full depth and breadth.’
Maintenance is the key to societies, businesses, and also our personal lives to experience sustainability.
And this is why innovation is overrated: To thrive in business, we have to stay alive in the first place. We can win by never losing. And aiming at resilience is good for a healthy state of mind.
Parting Words on Why Innovation is Overrated and What to Focus on Instead
So far, I have argued that obsessive focus on the new undermines the basis of sustainable growth. And as a result, that is why innovation is overrated. Not because of a conservative tendency to cling to the old and traditional, but because innovation cannot be an end to itself.
At the core, creativity is about solving problems.
As the age-old wisdom goes, being adaptive and positively receptive allows you to do business and go about your life in a replenished, energetic way.
And keeping your personal energy level high is what you really want to manage. Then, with consistency, innovation will become an incremental part of how you run your business and your life. But no need to be paranoid about it.