Innovation Necessity – Thinking the Unthinkable

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation Necessity - Thinking the Unthinkable“Solitary, poor, brutish, nasty and short” is how Thomas Hobbs, a political thinker from the 1600s described the “life of man”. Hobbs, along with John Locke and a number of other social and political theorists, developed ideas around the social contract which influenced many thinkers and lead to changes in government in the United States (our revolution from England) and in other countries.

Hobbs was describing the fate of people when everyone seeks to gain at the expense of everyone else. Only legitimate governance could improve the fates of men. His thinking and the thinking of others led to the Enlightenment and influenced Jefferson, Franklin and others as well. So why the history lesson?

I too have a theory: the more “nasty, brutish and short” the timeframe for innovation, the more likely the firm will be to seek disruptive innovation. Here’s what I mean by that.

Too often firms will “innovate” – that is, seek to stretch their thinking or boundaries slightly, when another firm introduces a new product or service. However, since the pain or shift isn’t so great, the effort given to the innovation is rather slight and the results are often at best incremental. Firms don’t typically extend themselves into radical or disruptive innovation until they’ve exercised every other option. Then, when all “reasonable” responses are exhausted, they exercise the unreasonable or unthinkable options.

Innovators, in large firms and in small firms, seem to work best when all the extraneous and reasonable options have been stripped away, when they work under tight timeframes to achieve the impossible or unexpected. In other words, innovators will work best and seem to achieve the best outcomes, when their environment is nasty, their work is brutish, and their time is short. Innovating from a position of comfort and security, tinkering around the edges, will only result in incremental innovation.

What’s interesting is how much time is lost, how many opportunities squandered, getting to that result. Many firms have started and shut down new product development or innovation activities that tinkered with the margins, at first unwilling to consider the unreasonable or unthinkable alternatives. Over time they realize that the small shifts aren’t valuable and fall further and further behind. What might have been possible if they skipped immediately to the unreasonable and unthinkable options from the start? Certainly the approach would have been a shock to the system, but perhaps that’s exactly what was needed.

By nasty, brutish and short I don’t mean we should lock innovators in a dungeon and feed them bread and water. But what I do mean is that often the only way to think differently is to strip away all the comfortable attributes we cling to and think cannot change, and start from that vantage point. Placing greater importance, a sense of urgency and a short timeframe only heightens the pace of thinking and change. Otherwise change moves at the pace the organization will bear, slowly if at all.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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  1. Most organizations try to be effective and efficient while being innovative. While these attributes aren’t mutually exclusive, they require different skill sets. For an organization to be “forward looking”, its needs a group of individuals who aren’t looking at leaning, CMMI, etc…they need to be challenged with looking at the boundaries. Finding those interesting items which aren’t directly connected to the bottom line. Disruptive innovation benefits from individuals who are broad in thinking; consider user experience before technology, those that aren’t afraid to talk to competitors, and those who understand the benefits of various business models.

    If you can harness a group of individuals with these attritributes, then you can move ahead in creating the next disruptive innovation – rather than waiting until you are laying on the edge of the street, feeling the pain of just being run over by that Mac Truck!

  2. Interesting article, and from my experience fairly accurate. I believe that the ultimate driver for this behavior is risk aversity. When life is comfortable, the perceived risk is higher and the perceived gain is lower. When life is uncomfortable, and backs are against the wall, the perceived risks diminish (there’s nothing left to lose) and the perceived possible gains increase dramatically. So the key question, in my opinion, is how to change the risk/reward perception when life is comfortable, before the work must of necessity become nasty, brutish, and short.

  3. Great post, thanks for sharing! Of course most companies would prefer to stick to the status quo, it’s all too easy and comfortable. But I would argue that there has to be a fine balance between incremental and breakthrough innovations. Although it can’t be your only focus, incremental innovation is the oil that keeps the engine running. You can only grow your business so much by adding aloe as an ingredient or offering a different color (New and improved!). Breakthrough innovation is expensive, messy and uncomfortable but it’s necessary to pursue if you want to keep up in today’s world.

    Read more in our blog post about The Three Levels of Innovation.

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