One of the biggest myths of innovation is that it’s all about ‘new ideas.’ “We’re stuck … we need new ideas here!” you’ll often hear someone say.
Yes, clearly new ideas are a core part of innovating. But we need to dispel the myth that they’re the sole part of innovating. Ironically, ‘old’ ideas may actually be more important in creating change.
Abraham Lincoln, perhaps surprisingly, illustrates this brilliantly.
Lincoln was an innovator in the sense that he helped create a new America, a United States that no longer permitted slavery. He transformed America from a country that treated slaves as assets on a plantation’s balance sheet to a nation where every human being would be free regardless of the color of their skin.
How did he do it? Did he simply champion this ‘new’ idea or go around calling for more new ideas? Not at all. He skillfully built his case for change upon some of the oldest ideas in the country: freedom, equality and justice.
You can see this beautifully in his most famous words of the period, the Gettysberg address. In this brief, eloquent plea for change, Lincoln invokes the ideals of the founding fathers – ideals they hoped would never change: a country “conceived in liberty” and built on the belief that “all men are created equal.”
Thomas J Watson, Jr., who spearheaded IBM in the 1960s, applied the same wisdom to make IBM at once both firmly grounded and innovative. He believed this so strongly he wrote a book called A Business and Its Beliefs. In the book, he captured the basic idea perfectly:
“any great organization … owes its resiliency … to the power of what we call beliefs and the appeal these beliefs have for its people. … the single most imporant factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to those beliefs. And finally … if an organization is to meet the challenges of a changing world, it must be prepared to change everything about itself except those beliefs as it moves through corporate life … . 1
In other words, it’s the old ideas, the core beliefs that don’t change, that actually produce the purpose that drives change and new ideas. That’s the philosophy that has kept IBM at the top of its field to this day.
Once again, it’s that kind of dedication to an ‘old’ idea that drives the search for the new ideas.
Take the idea of true customer service. It too is an old idea, as old as business itself. Unfortunately, it’s not always embraced in a world only looking for ‘new’ ideas.
Today, sadly, too few businesses really take it seriously.
Steve Jobs did, and the results showed. In fact, he took customer service to a level of near-obsession. It was all for the customer: if the customer isn’t a fan, you haven’t done your job. His mission was to provide the customer with an “insanely great experience,” not just customer service.
In the last several years, the world of Design Thinking is, fortunately, helping to bring back the ‘old’ idea of empathy. “Deep empathy for people makes our observations powerful sources of inspiration,” say Tom Kelley and David Kelley from IDEO. “We aim to understand why people do what they do … our first-person experiences help us form personal connections with people for whome we’re innovating … all to build empathy. An empathic approach fuels our process by ensuring we never forget we’re designing for real people.” 2
Unfortunately, not enough companies have yet embraced the ‘old’ idea of empathy. Often the fetish remains solely on short-term profit, and the result at best is to pretend to be innovating rather than actually doing it.
So the next time someone says “we need new ideas here!”, stop and ask, “Wait a second. What about the time-tested, old ideas we believe in? Do we really have any? What are the deeply-held beliefs that we’re not prepared to change here?
In other words, to think like an innovator, to bring about the real change you truly want, first ask yourself if you have deep beliefs that you would never change. When you find them, don’t be shy. Embrace them, and let them drive the search for the change you do want.