Dispelling 4 mythological beliefs about innovation

According to the ancient Greeks, Prometheus took pity on mankind. He walked among men and noticed that they were no longer as happy as they were when Kronos the Titan was their king. He saw them living in the dark and shivering in the cold because they had no light to help them see and no fire to help them stay warm.

So Prometheus stole a spark from Zeus’s own lightning and brought fire to mankind. It was the dawn of civilization and enabled mankind to flourish.

But while mankind was now off cooking steak and smelting bronze, things didn’t work out so hot for Prometheus himself. For his disobedience he was chained to a rock at the top of a mountain and every day a giant eagle would come tear out his liver and eat it. At night, his liver would regenerate and the ordeal would begin anew each day.

It’s an interesting time for all the digital Promethei, especially those working in marketing. After all, our jobs require that we bring new and unknown ideas to our clients with the hope of ‘futurizing’ their marketing mix to make it more effective. In the America that we live in, almost everyone has a smartphone in his or her pocket. A majority of Americans have high-speed web access, and the sheer number of digitally enabled things we interact with is greater than ever before. The internet of things is upon us. The power and ubiquity of the platforms and APIs available to any given development team means things can be created at a scale and speed that were impossible 5 years ago.

Compounding the situation further is that you can’t flip through Wired or Inc. or Fast Company without reading pages upon pages about the ever-changing landscape of start-ups and internet-based businesses that are reshaping the American economy. The tech business is booming. Being a wild success with a tech idea is becoming the new American Dream and everyone fantasizes about becoming the next great digital titan.

But this has created a Jekyll and Hyde(1) type of situation. In one sense, it’s been empowering. Marketers are embracing new ideas and experimentation with a zeal that hasn’t seen since the early days of the web. Digital innovation is now coveted and the internet is no longer seen as an inferior medium compared to others. Additionally, clients are gaining a greater appetite for ‘new’ and “differentiating’ ideas and the willingness to try things may be at an all time high.


As if they weren’t undervalued enough already, strategy and planning are becoming increasingly viewed as unnecessary, and clients are shifting from defining the objectives for a brand to defining the tactical imperatives of a brand. For example, it’s no longer ‘obtaining new customers’ or ‘getting a patient to stop missing every third dose’, it’s ‘build an app”, or ‘use Shazaam.’ This type of behavior isn’t new, but it does seem to be getting more commonplace with every passing day.

The problem isn’t so much the extensive tactical requests, but the inherent implication that because it’s supposed to be innovative, thinking isn’t necessary, success is easy, and poor design doesn’t matter. Mythologies have evolved with clients about what innovation is and how it happens, some of them so fanciful, they might as well come with wings and a tail. It’s time to dispel those myths and hopefully do so in such a way that we can all stop feeling like our livers are being eaten.

Mythology #1: Strategy Doesn’t Matter

There’s a perception that start-ups just build things and launch them without much thought. I’ve had that idea expressed to me a number of times and it’s troubling. I’m not entirely sure if it’s innocently naive or willful ignorance, but the perspective is incredibly delusional.

Start-ups spend extraordinary amounts of time pressure testing their ideas. In fact, in order to get any kind of investment or funding you pretty much need a rock solid business plan showing how you intend to monetize your idea and grow it to profitability. While it’s true that apps and sites can have rolling launches and can be in ‘perpetual beta’ that doesn’t mean the idea was half-assed or that the business rationale was not well thought out.

I’m all for continuously improving an app or online service, and think the launch-and-learn approach should be adopted more across the industry, not less. But that shouldn’t come at the expense of thorough planning, audience assessments, design testing, and a rigorous prioritization of functionality, all of which needs to be done before you build your product or service.

Acting like a start-up means spending more time planning and strategizing, not less. When anyone insists that their projects be run like a start-up you can pretty much bet they’ve never actually worked for one.

Mythology #2: Nine Women Can Have a Baby in A Month

In marketing (and most) businesses, deadlines are a way of life but there are really only 2 kinds of deadlines; mandatory deadlines and arbitrary deadlines. A good portion of the typical agency person’s life is spent trying to meet arbitrary deadlines, not mandatory ones. What’s the difference you ask? Product launches are mandatory, FDA submissions are mandatory; the deadlines for the majority of other marketing programs are often not. For innovation projects, the deadlines are almost always self–imposed. The very nature of innovation means you don’t always know how long it’s going to take or what roadblocks will be encountered along the way. If you’re not willing to be flexible and make trade-offs or accommodations along the way, the idea will almost always suffer as a result.

Any given project has to meet expectations around three characteristics: features, quality, and time. When a project cannot meet all three goals, tradeoffs need to be made. Want certain features? You may need to be flexible on timing. Want a certain level of quality? You may need fewer features for your initial launch. Holding hard and fast to an arbitrary pre-determined date means trade-offs will almost always have to be made. Instead, you should plan for a rolling launch so features can be added in stages. (Ironically, that’s more akin to acting like a start up, but most people are uncomfortable with that kind of approach.)

I’m not suggesting that teams shouldn’t have deadlines or accountability should be thrown out the window, but as a marketer (especially if you’re a client) you need to see arbitrary deadlines for what they are. Sometimes pushing a launch date might be the best thing to ensure a robustness of an innovative product or service.

Too often, people feel that the best way to overcome the unknown obstacles that arise while attempting to keep to the original deadline is to throw resources at the problem. In fact, that’s probably the exact opposite of what should be done. The more people involved in a project the slower and less efficiently it will operate. Increasing the size of a team as a reaction to unforeseen circumstances almost always increases the overall degree of complexity of the project. The more people that are added to a given project the likelihood of errors increases exponentially. Pushing to have more people work on your innovative project probably won’t get it to launch any faster, it’ll just create more bugs. You can put 9 women in a room, but you can’t make them have a baby in a month.

Mythology #3: Innovation Is Always A Radical Leap

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines innovation as “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.” This doesn’t mean that all innovation is a radically new device or idea. Let’s use Apple as an example. When Apple introduced the iPod, they didn’t invent the mp3 player, they simply improved the overall experience of managing and listening to your music. The iPod wasn’t the major driver of Apple’s success in the music business, iTunes was. Prior to the iTunes launch, collating and managing your mp3 library on a device was a nightmare. It was a set of innovations that built upon the existing layer of available technologies and improved upon them.

Square makes the ability to accept credit card payments available to any individual with a smart phone. It didn’t invent the credit card or the credit card payment system; it merely made those resources more accessible to more potential merchants. Apple didn’t invent the smart phone, or touch screen technologies, but there’s no doubt they’ve completely remade what we think about smart phones and the cell phone industry as a whole. Think of companies like Uber, Skype, PayPal, or Spotify. The kind of service they provide has been around for years, but the form that service takes is where the innovation lies.

Too often in pharma, the goal is for innovation to make something completely new or accomplish something that has never done before, rather than an incremental improving on an existing idea. Creating something new should always be in the consideration set, but the scale of success is often limited. Yes, being the first pharma brand to figure out a way to use Snapchat would certainly be a nice feather in a marketers cap and most certainly play into their case to be promoted, but when all is said and done, if the project only attracted 50 users, was it worth it? New may be interesting, but may not better for users or innovative in a way that has any kind of scale. The pharma industry has tons of opportunities to innovate in areas like how websites are built, or media is deployed, or social is utilized, or the value proposition for apps and not all of that innovation will be easily branded as “first in class.” If your goal for innovating is to be first, that’s fine, but understand the better results may come from by investing in a more innovative ways to design or deploy something that’s been around for years.

Mythology #4: Failure Is Not An option

The concept that “failure is not an option” is a conceptual fantasy about how those who don’t understand the innovation process should motivate those who do. That sentiment became a popular addition to our lexicon after a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13, added the dialogue into the movie.(2) No one working at NASA ever said that phrase.

Some of the greatest innovations of our lives come came as a result of failures on other projects. The microwave was created as the result of a failed attempt to invent a better radar system. The Slinky was invented after some engineers failed to create better springs to keep sensitive instruments from breaking on Navy vessels. Superglue was the result of a failed attempt to develop a new material for precision gun sights. Teflon was a failed experiment in making better refrigeration materials.(3) NASA’s vaunted moon program, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested dozens of unmanned missions first, most of which failed completely.(4)

The phrase ‘fail faster’ has become de rigueur in marketing lately, but it’s meaningless if teams aren’t allowed the space and flexibility to actually do so. When it comes to innovation, a ‘failure’ in the process can often lead you to a place that may be better than where you originally thought you were headed. If your true goal is to work with your team to drive innovation then you need to be flexible and go where the process takes you.

Instead of framing your outcomes for innovation on specific solutions or rigidly defined tactics, work with your teams to clearly define the objectives for the project and adhere to those. That should give everyone involved the flexibility to modify or adjust as necessary. If talent is hitting a target no one else can hit and genius is hitting a target no one else can see, you need to be open to the possibility of ending up in an unexpected place to really create something special.

  1. I get it, while not Greek mythology, the story of J&H is modern mythology

  2. Thanks to Clay Shirky’s blog for informing and inspiring this concept

  3. Accidental Discoveries

  4. Failure is not an option

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