I believe that we’re substituting the word “innovation” for “ingenuity” in technology today, and that this is getting in the way of real experimentalism and true breakthroughs.

Innovation no longer describes what it originally meant, which was, “Hey, you did something that was really clever,” or “Wow, that was really, really interesting, or “That was mind-blowing, truly mind-boggling.”

Today, when you ask someone what’s innovative about his or her company, they might say, “We built a new feature.” Is that really clever? Is that really mind-boggling?

Part of the problem is that the word “innovation” has been co-opted in a marketing context. We’ve been exposed to an explosion of information, and each day there’s a cascade of “cutting-edge” or “leading-edge” “innovations” that are characterized as “breakthroughs.”

In my dictionary, innovation originally meant, and still means, ingenuity.

And, when I sit back and look at something that I think is ingenious, it’s a very specific word, a word with far less ambiguity than innovative.

When you talk about something that’s ingenious, there's a confluence of three factors: a challenge, maybe an impossible or daunting problem; an idea, thought or clever notion for solving the problem; and the pursuit of that solution and, presumably, a completion and success.

So, ingenuity brings together adversity, challenge and difficulty with cleverness, adaptability, perseverance and endurance.

This combination is in short supply in technology right now.

It’s also very rare that we see ingenuity in revenue-stage businesses, companies that are established, stable and in scale mode. Yes, they’ve found a market, built the product, and delivered. But they sling the word “innovation” all around, all the time, even though they’re just iterating and extending. There's nothing ingenious going on. And there's no challenge other than maybe the operational scaling and the marketing and sales lift.

This is very different from the startup experience, where you’re surrounded by risk and adversity from Day One and, in order to survive, there has to be creativity, cleverness and serendipity that leads to ingenuity.

Ingenuity Isn’t a Goal -- It’s a Measurement of the Result or Process

Ingenuity isn’t a means, a practice or a goal. When you're in the moment faced with a technical challenge, when you have to synthesize a solution, or when you have to make something work, you're not thinking, “How can I be ingenious here?”

Ingenuity is, however, a post-facto assessment. It's a measurement of the result, or a measurement of the process.

But to achieve ingenious results, I believe that you have to be unattached to having the right answer and, instead, being attached to finding the right answer.

In practical terms, you make the best choice you can on any given day; and then, the next day, when you have better information, you change that choice. You’re able to say, “That worked yesterday, but it doesn’t work today.”

To me, this attitude is defined by experimentalism; a bias toward action; an obsession with the details that you think are important; an ability to move and change; and a willingness to be versatile in action and agile in thought.

The people who have the greatest potential for ingenuity are those who have the greatest capacity for mastery, for fearlessly and adventurously learning new things, and for critical thinking.

This is essential in a startup because you’re always approaching something difficult and challenging that’s never been done before. So, you're going to need new solutions and new ideas, and you have to surrender and throw yourself into things that you’ve had no experience with before.

There are tons of people I've encountered in my career who are wonderful at particular domains of technology development. Those are great skills. But you also need a layer in front of those skills that helps evaluate and assess if you’ve got the right solution or need to synthesize something new. That’s where ingenuity comes in.

The Best Startups Are Experimental and Adaptable, Not Necessarily Ingenious

A startup doesn’t have to be ingenious to be successful. You can make a lot of money and change the world without being ingenious. And products that aren’t ingenious can also be incredibly valuable.

But, for me, the glory and success in a startup comes when you adapt, experiment, obsess and cope with adversity as you try to solve real technology problems through trial and error. If this is the way the process unfolds, the odds are pretty good that you’re going to end up with something that’s truly and authentically ingenious at the end of the day.

Published on: Sep 10, 2015