As I'm getting ready to host Innovation Congress next week (July 18-19th), one somewhat obvious observation occurred to me: innovation is hard work. Our society considers innovation to be quite sexy these days, but it's far from easy. And yet no one seems willing to say this publicly.

I've covered this topic before, but I thought it would make sense to talk to some of the standouts that are speaking at Innovation Congress to hear their own brutal truths about innovation. Here are some of their hard-won insights.

#1: There are no shortcuts

"Innovating is definitely hard work," says Jen Rubio, who knows from experience. She's the co-founder of Away, the startup that sells high-quality, high-tech luggage directly to consumers at affordable prices. "You hear so many stories about that 'one great idea' where someone lucked out and identified a gap in the market, or created something that no one had ever thought of before," says Rubio. "But the truth is that for every one of those stories, there are hundreds more about someone with a similarly great idea who wasn't able to get it off the ground."

Once you have the "aha" moment, Rubio advises entrepreneurs, you have to be passionate and driven enough to make your product successful. And even then, the stars often have to align perfectly as well. It's never easy, but having the drive to see things through will make the path seem less arduous.

#2: Complacency is your enemy

"The biggest threat to innovation is a solution that mostly works," says Jon Roberts, the Chief Innovation Officer of Dotdash, the former About.com. "When something looks like it'll kind of work, our natural inclination is to leave it be, or to test and iterate. Then it's easy to optimize into mediocrity. A clear failure forces you to stop, and try a new direction."

Roberts believes that we dub a solution innovative when we see something bold, striking and new. Often the reason something is considered bold is because they've proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the other options will not work. This is absolutely true of research science. New paradigm shifting theories (relativity, quantum mechanics, gravity waves) are the result of thoroughly and completely disproving every simple answer.

While innovators may not always have the resources or the time to thoroughly disprove every other approach, they have to be willing to get out there and take the chance. If it fails, it fails -- and you'll know it's time to move on to the next hypothesis.

#3: Get ready to sweat

"I think of Thomas Edison's quote about genius being one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration," says Peter Weingard, WNYC's Chief Marketing Officer. "Innovation is pretty much the same ratio."

Weingard believes that all innovators have ideas about how to improve their products, businesses, and the world in general, but the truth is "it's lots of hard work, and many failures, before the idea can be executed as imagined."

"Innovation requires venturing into the unknown and a willingness to upend norms," says Weingard. That may sound exciting and sexy, sure, but it also means you'll have to face uncomfortable risks.

#4: You'll have to throw a lot of ideas at the wall

It turns out creativity and innovation are just like everything else: if you want to be good at them, you'll have to put in the work.

"Many of the great innovators in history can be explained by grit," says Jason Keath of Social Fresh, the organizers of Innovation Congress. These great innovators, Keath explains, simply stick with a problem longer than anyone else is willing to. He cites the example of Weekend Update, the longest running skit on Saturday Night Live. For every Weekend Update, the hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che will tell about 15-20 jokes in the course of a 5-to-10 minute sketch. But in order to get those 15-20 jokes, the show's writers might have to pitch around 750 jokes. "Finding a new solution to something takes scale in one form or another," says Keath. "Put in more hours than the next guy or gal."

What's a brutal truth about innovation you've had to uncover the hard way? Let me know over email or, better yet, grab a ticket to Innovation Congress and let me know in person.

Published on: Jul 11, 2017
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