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Innovation is Saying No To 1,000 Things

Innovation can be very misunderstood. People think innovation is (only) about creativity, brainstorming, design, and big Aha moments. While this is not incorrect, there is an equally important component that should not be overlooked at any cost; discipline.

The amateur innovator tries to accomplish many things in a short period of time, adding feature upon feature to their product or service hoping they will create more sales. The real innovation pro knows that you need to focus. She knows that if you focus on a small set of priorities and do them really, really well, you’ll likely come out on top.

The late Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, knew this very well. He famously said:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

I remember watching, some years ago, an interview with current Apple CEO Tim Cook where he boasted that Apple had so few products that they could all fit on the coffee table that was sitting between him and his interviewer. I don’t know how many products LG, Samsung and the like have but I imagine they must be hundreds, if not thousands. They range from mobile devices, fridges and washing machines to air purifiers, computers and solar equipment.

Good innovation is knowing what not to do. Read Steve Jobs’ quote again, he said he’s as proud of the things they haven’t done as the things they have. One of my favourite stories that exemplify Steve Jobs disciplined approach to innovation is by Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’ biographer:

“He would stand in front of a whiteboard […] and ask, “What are the 10 things we should be doing next?” People would fight to get their suggestions on the list. Jobs would write them down—and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of 10. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, ‘We can only do three.’”

A disciplined approach to innovation was also followed by a former CEO of Intel, the legendary Andy Grove. He said “Each time you make a commitment, you forfeit your chance to commit to something else. [...] if we try to focus on everything, we focus on nothing.”

So, in your next brainstorming session, make sure you end up with less initiatives than in previous ones, but focus on them really hard and execute with total commitment.

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