Patterns of Successful Innovation

Most of what you read about how to innovate and how to achieve success as an entrepreneur is irrelevant at best, and a cargo cult at worst. The real success patterns are not well known. They work. If you want to be seen by the world as doing the right thing, keep doing what "everyone" says you should do. But if you want to ... win ... you may want to consider learning from the patterns that actually work.

Patterns that work in health and fitness

Let's look at a clear winning pattern in health and see if it can be applied to learning how to innovate. (Hint: it can't.)

Sometimes you're struck down by an illness that no action of yours could have prevented. HOWEVER, there are proven patterns of behavior that greatly improve your health and resistance to disease, and related patterns that clearly result in your being able to run faster, jump higher and lift more weight. While the specific advice to achieve these things varies, the principles as understood by mainstream experts are largely valid.

It's pretty simple: eat a variety of mostly un-pre-packaged foods with a minimum of additives and things like fructose, and balance exercise and eating so that you maintain a moderate weight for your body type. For fitness, it's exercise and practice.

In addition to these common-sense patterns, there other things people do that make sense. If you see someone who has achieved what you want to achieve in terms of health and fitness, it makes sense to find out how they did it and emulate their actions. In addition, it's broadly known that motivation is a key factor, along with attitude and consistent behavior.

In other words, study what the fit, healthy people do, and do it yourself. Pretty simple, at least in concept.

Applying the Observe-and-Emulate Pattern to Innovation

Most things you learn or achieve, you are doing again or for yourself something that has already been done, typically by millions of people. That's what education is all about, for example. When you get educated, you are walking down a well-trod road. What about science education? Same thing. You have to learn the facts, the concepts, the math.

What about innovation? Is it just another thing you can get educated in and learn from the teachers, who learn from the experts? No! Innovation is different. Innovation is some combination of creation, discovery and adapting. It's being the first. It's creating something that wasn't there before. It's taking something that worked in a particular time and place, and making the substantial changes required to work in entirely new circumstances.

Imagine taking a course in exploring new lands in Europe in 1480. Who were the experts? What did they teach? Who could you study and emulate? Of course, there were lots of self-styled, widely revered "experts" who knew all about it. Sure. Columbus had to do it without any help that was actually, you know, helpful!

Innovation is not like health, fitness and most everything else. It's different.

Winning Innovation Patterns

I truly hope someone will figure out if there are winning patterns for innovation and make a science out of it. Until then, from years of observation of people trying hard to innovate, I've noticed a couple of things.

  • Pattern: Expert-phobia

Successful innovators ignore the experts. They ignore (1) the experts in their field of innovation, and they ignore (2) experts on innovation itself.

Sometimes experts in a given field, even widely-acknowledges ones, are actually good. While the vast majority simply assert and defend the common view, sometimes an unusual expert will innovate or be helpful to an innovator. But this is the exception. The invention of powered flight is a great example of what usually happens; how the "expert" approach never got off the ground, and the hard-working unknowns made the key innovations. Here's my description.

Successful innovators just don't have time to waste on people who claim to be experts in "innovation" itself. They know that real knowledge is all that matters.

With all the noise about "innovation" in the air, it may seem to make sense to dive in to the "innovation" pond. I've noticed that the people who actually end up innovating with success don't go there. They've got better things to do. If they largely ignore experts in their field, why would they pay attention to experts in generic innovation?

  • Pattern: Dive Deep, be the Best

The people who create innovations that work started by diving real deep into some particular area of experience or knowledge. They became real-life, on-the-ground, go-to experts in something. Not famous. Not writing books and giving talks. Just knowing more and accomplishing more in some narrow area of activity.

Knowing as much as they do, they stick their heads about water, and get dissatisfied. They see waste; or stupidity; or something that could be better or be done better. They set out to do it, from the basis of being the best at the status quo. They know how things should be done. They start by wondering how things could be done.

  • Pattern: Ignore the Big Picture, Focus on the Little Picture

Most people who get known as experts spend most of their energy sharing their wisdom and broadening their knowledge. They don't innovate.

The successful innovators can be remarkably clueless about the "big picture." Not their problem. They are absorbed with the day-to-day, with what confronts them in the here-and-now. They tend to be do-ers who can think, not thinkers who pretend they could do if they really wanted to.

Often, the problems that inspire innovators are "trivial," from the big-picture point of view. It is just those problems that inspire practical, real-life innovation. Here's a description of "little picture" innovation, and here's an example of "little data" innovation.

  • Pattern: Innovate as Little as Possible

Innovators like to innovate. They think of themselves as creative people. They love to solve knotty problems. This is the main problem of many creative people who fail to innovate with success. They can't stop!

People who innovate successfully innovate something that matters. Then they stop innovating, and do what they need to do to make their innovation work in the real world. They reduce their risk. They stick with proven things. Because they want their innovation to work!

  • Pattern: Solve Real Problems of Real People

Everyone knows that medical records have to go digital. They've know it for a long time. There were and are loads of experts and industry committees piously pontificating about the best way to do it.

Then a programmer -- yes, a real, live software engineer -- went into the records room of a medical practice and learned how to do the job from the people who were already doing it. He did the work, not just for a couple hours, but for days on end. Long enough to see all the issues. Long enough to get bored, get annoyed, get ideas and get motivated to automate stuff.

He didn't make a plan. He didn't create a strategy. He didn't run some ideas past some people. He wrote some code. Code that would make his life in the filing room better. He tried it out. He wrote more code. The people who really worked there asked if they could use it when he wasn't there -- because it would make their jobs easier. What a concept! The code became Athena Health's highly successful clinical records management product -- a rare example of innovation taking place inside an already-successful company.

  • Pattern: Apply Step Theory

Successful innovators don't tend to have carefully-thought-out strategic plans. They don't lay careful foundations. They don't create detailed plans that account for a wide range of contingencies. They know that if they don't get through today, there will be no tomorrow. They know that there may end up being 1,000 steps in their journey, but they also know that if they fail on step 1, they have failed. So step 1 is the ONLY step that matters.

This is "step theory." For more details and examples, see my book.

  • Pattern: Ignore Fashion, Except for Scale-up Marketing

It's rare that people who jump on one of the fancy new bandwagons accomplish much of real value. In fact, most of the fancy new bandwagons are little but fancy new names for things that have been around, while others are fads that will fade out. Big Data? Old news. Machine learning? Been around. Blockchain? Great for Bitcoin, not much else.

Nonetheless, to the extent that the fashionable thing happens to be applicable to a narrow, real-world problem and smart, go-deep people focus on real problems and solve them with urgency, innovation can result. Then, as the innovation starts to get traction, it makes perfect sense to embrace the fashion. Why not? If that's what it takes to get people to pay attention to you, you do it.


Here are a few examples of real-life innovation that I'm associated with. Here is a whole book of innovation stories, taken from real life and personal experience. I hope that these patterns of successful innovation will be further explored and help inspire future innovators.