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James E. Smith: You cannot learn to swim on dry land

By By James E. Smith

A young lad was approached by his parents one day with the announcement that the family was going on a long-overdue vacation to the beach. Since the child had grown up in an arid climate far from any large bodies of water, he immediately had a long string of questions, as children often do. “What’s a beach?” he says.

The parents’ answered, “It is next to the ocean.” To this the young man asks, “What’s an ocean? And what will we do there?”

“Well” they said, “The ocean is a vast body of water that stretches as far as the eye can see.” “Yeah right,” said the youngster in disbelief, “but what will we do there?”

“We can play with the sand on the beach, relax a lot, and we can even swim in the ocean”, the parents replied.

“Swim?”

The parents explained that if you learn to move your arms and legs properly and learn to pace your breathing, you would stay afloat and propel yourself through the water. “Wow, I need to swim,” said the child.

So the family worked on the fundamentals of swimming. They found some saw horses and some lumber to stretch between the supports such that the child could lay on the boards and practice different strokes. The young boy spent several hours each day learning to move his arms and legs in a controlled fashion. Nearing the start of their vacation the young man announced that he is ready to go to the beach and eager to demonstrate his newfound skills at swimming.

At the beach the boy ran ahead of his protesting parents, dove in and started his practiced movements. As expected, the next thing that happened was for one of the parents to extract the child from the water, coughing and sputtering. “But Dad,” he said “I did everything right.”

With a little coaching and a lot of patience, the boy finally goes back into the water and with the help of his parents he manages to learn the necessary fundamentals of swimming and is soon enjoying the many pleasures of playing in water. One day while leaving the beach the child remarks, “You know I thought I could swim when I got here; now I know. And I think I am beginning to understand what an ocean is, but it will take a lot more before I think I will fully know, like I do with swimming.”

This is a lot like the uninitiated speaking about innovation. The word itself is used to define a variety of concepts and processes. Most innovators define the term to mean the process of making an idea manifest, the invention, solution, etc., and successfully placing it in the marketplace; the completed innovation process. Innovation can come in a variety of forms, but unless it recognizes a problem, need, or desire, plus provides a marketable solution, it is not innovation. An innovation changes the way we perform life’s functions.

Most of the current rhetoric on innovation is little more than a waste of time, often resulting in a false sense that the people who are brandishing the word actually know or understand the meaning. The true Litmus test for the use of the word should be the demonstrable set of metrics that show economic value. Thus, the cure for cancer, anti-gravity, or zero-point energy, for examples, each sitting on laboratory shelves are not innovations. They are a waste of intellectual capital (and to my way of thinking a criminal act against society) until they go to market and effect a change.

The problem isn’t just with the use of the word; it also comes with those charged with creating innovation that have little or no concept for the necessary steps to bring about a positive, marketable result. Much like the young man and swimming, innovation is an experiential activity. While learning some of the fundamentals might ease the transition, until you are fully immersed in the total process you will quickly find yourself in the deep end of the pool with no lifeguard; the commercial world is very unforgiving.

Thus, putting together teams of untried or unsuccessful innovators to effect a strategy for creating innovation is at best a waste of time and money, and worse a recipe for discouragement and disillusionment. If added to this are individuals who have never run a business, let alone a startup, then the likelihood for a valuable outcome from the effort goes quickly to zero. More importantly, those individuals who have the promise of an innovative future can be misled and even derailed by the good intentions of those who think they know the correct process steps to the introduction of an innovation.

Innovators are often regarded as problematic; they see things differently and, clearly, they march to a different drummer. They do not understand risk as a normal person might and the fire-in-the-belly for their newfound passion is unquenchable. At least once a day someone will tell them their idea will not work, it is doomed to failure, or consider the risk you are creating for your career and the future of your family.

The funny part is that this gauntlet starts early, long before the idea gets close to the marketing stage. The number of comments and concerns go up exponentially until there is a breakthrough in the commercialization. By then everyone will be supportive and claim to have contributed in some small fashion.

Only a few innovations will actually see the light of day. Some ideas will not be strong enough and the organizational support deep enough, or maybe the timing, which can be everything, wasn’t right. There are numerous reasons for innovations to fail, but some always get through which refreshes our commercial marketplace. More importantly, even those innovators who do not succeed the first time will often come around again.

So, how do we help these people and their ideas? It won’t come from putting advisory groups or physical resources together administered by non-innovators. Remember this process is experiential in nature; it won’t come from reading books or case studies. It also won’t help to get ideas and their creators up to the prototype stage unless you are willing to go the rest of the way. It turns out that getting the innovation and its champion through the proof-of-concept stage is about a small fraction of the way to successful commercialization, if that much.

What is needed is a dedicated group of proven innovators who have crawled, kicking and screaming to commercial success. They can be hired or recruited as mentors to provide the direction and counseling. More importantly, they need access to the physical and financial resources they will need to get their charges through to the end, without the typical oversight and political considerations that come from the way things are done now and not how they will need to be done to create change.

The individuals we need are out there. Large percentages are either willing or are currently working to promote other innovators. Why don’t they come forward? It is because the current system would manage them into obscurity. They know how to innovate; they don’t just think they do. More importantly, they have seen the vast potential and how to use it. So, they will keep working with the younger versions of themselves with the hope of creating that next great something.

James E. Smith is professor and director of the Center for Industrial Research Applications at West Virginia University.


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