What The Karate Kid Teaches Us About Innovation

by Jeffrey Phillips

What The Karate Kid Teaches Us About InnovationOne of life’s little ironies is the fact that irony is everywhere and so often unidentified or unappreciated. In the innovation space we encounter irony, often unintentional irony, quite often. Before we go further though, let’s make sure of our definitions. Irony has several defintions, dealing with intentional misuse of words, but the definition I’m interested in is:

‘incongruity between what is expected to be and what actually is, or a situation or result showing such incongruity’

What happens so often in an innovation setting is that people demonstrate a significant incongruity between what they believe to be the case, and what is actually the case. Take for example how prepared a new innovation team is to perform innovation tasks. Many people assume innovation is second nature and good ideas should naturally bubble up from our collective consciousness. Therefore, it’s rare that innovation teams spend time coming up to speed on innovation tools, creative thinking or other factors that might support innovation. It’s ironic that in organizations that constantly measure and reinforce training and skill development that innovation receives so little training focus.

Something shiny and new

Perhaps the biggest irony we face is what I’ll call the “new shiny innovation technique”. I recently led an innovation workshop in China. One of the attendees asked me about half way through if I’d be introducing any really “new” innovation tools, since he felt he was familiar with all of the existing tools. After a few minutes of discussion, I realized that he was looking for a magic wand that would simply provide a definitive answer rather than tools that present a range of options. There are two ironies here. The first is expecting a divergent/convergent process that starts from a nascent need and explores customer desires to arrive at one clearly delineated solution that is guaranteed to work. If I had that solution, I wouldn’t be teaching workshops in Shanghai (although I enjoyed my visit). I’d be relaxing on a beach with a pina colada.

The second, and I think the more difficult irony is the search for new techniques for innovation. The reason the search for new techniques and methods is so ironic is that most organizations don’t have command of innovation basics. They will readily admit to poor idea generation results, limited creativity, cramped innovation thinking, little understanding of customer needs and future trends. They are AWARE of tools and methods but haven’t mastered many of them, and yet are dissatisfied with these tools and are more interested in discovering new tools rather than mastering the basics. Here’s a tip: TANSTAAFL. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Or, in other words, do your homework. Learn the basics. Master them. Stop searching for a magic wand that will provide immediate insights into the ideas that are guaranteed to succeed. Don’t believe anyone who tells you their tool, method or process will lead to definitive results.

Quoting Edison

Although he was talking about success, we could easily attribute one of Edison’s quote to innovation as well. He said that many people missed opportunities because “it shows up in overalls and looks like work”. He could have just as easily have been talking about innovation. When we fail to invest in the basics, learning innovation methods and tools, changing corporate culture, emphasizing creative thinking and instead seeking a mythical innovation tool that will deliver ideas that win every time, we are missing opportunities, and ignoring the tools and methods that are best suited to help you succeed.

When you start an innovation activity, don’t spend time looking for the method or tool or framework that promises immediate results that won’t fail. Spend time developing skills on basic innovation tools – like trend spotting, gathering customer needs, creative thinking, idea generation and so forth. Building up a rich base of competencies goes much further than trying to start at the top. Many of these nascent innovators remind me of the movie The Karate Kid. You’ll recall that the young kid wants to learn karate. The local teacher sets him to perform activities at the car wash – wax on, wax off. Over and over he works, never really understanding that he is perfecting the basics. In the end he finally realizes how much the simple basic tools and methods his teacher provided helped him win.

Irony or Earnestness

I think earnestness is the opposite of irony. If you are really interested in learning innovation and perfecting your abilities, learn and perfect the basics. Learn how to think expansively and creatively. Learn how to generate ideas and how to lead others. Learn how to identify customer needs. Learn the basics with earnestness and you’ll find the secret to successful innovation. It’s not a single tool, but a range of tools and insights used in the hands of people who are engaged, empathetic and open to insights.


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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 Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.