For many years I have been a very big admirer of Albert Einstein; of course for what he achieved but more importantly for the way how he reached those achievements. Einstein never stopped questioning what was given to him and always kept questioning correctness and truth. And that is exactly what made him the icon he is today; he did not take anyone else’s truths as his own and kept questioning the status-quo.
"Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen." and "The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education." is what Einstein had to say about that!
When working on his theory of relativity (http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/2887566) he faced a huge amount of opposition as he went against general popular academic beliefs at the time. As he later put it: "Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds."
A lot of his adversaries had the argument with the following structure: "But if that (x) would be true then then would also mean that (y) would have to be true and that is just not possible". This because it was "common knowledge" at the time that the possibility of (y) being through was null! But here is were Einstein's perseverance came through. He started working from the premiss: "What if it is true, what would that mean?”
He followed here his own adages: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." and "The only real valuable thing is intuition."
And after all setbacks and struggles he delivered once of the most ground-shaking results the physics world had ever seen: The special theory of relativity. And the most beautiful part of it was its simplicity; in 26 pages Einstein explains and proves, in a manner a talented high-school pupil can understand, his theory of relativity. Later in his life he put it in these words: "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction."; but also: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
Later in life he also worked on other issue like his “aether theory” which he called his biggest professional mistake. But this is very much in line with one of his other quotes: "A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new." and it also very much aligned with an old Buddhist saying: "Life is not the end of the road, life is the road". This means that going through the process of discovery leads to more discoveries but at the same time more failures. But the thing is: They are not failures, they are learning moments. In this life you learn nothing from winning, only failure provides you with the opportunity to learn!
If we translate this to innovation in the current day and age is evident that there are some universal principles that lead to success.
- (Dare to) Do something different: More value can only be created when you leave the “me too” track and not focus on head-to-head price competition. Lower prices do not provide significant value increase to customers!
- Keep trying; it is a process, not an end goal. Make sure you experiment and test enough to develop (organisational) learning through 'failing early'.
- Stand-up to ignorant bullies that are only interested in a quick fixes to make a quick buck. It is a practice that does not last. Just read this (ow.ly/9IK8e) public resignation letter from Greg Smith when he recently left Goldman Sachs.
There are many more Einstein quotes that are applicable to the innovation process but as last point I would like to mention the sign in Einstein's room in Princeton. It states: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
In business we are so caught-up with counting time and money that we forget two other important aspects of creating value: Knowledge and Emotions. These latter two we do not count in business because they are difficult to quantify bat that does not mean they do not matter. In my opinion they matter more in the development of sustainable businesses where people enjoy working and were customers gladly return. More on that another time.
Until next time.