Everyone loves innovation until they either have to do it or, worse, are confronted by it. Why? Because innovation is for assholes. If you’ve ever read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs or Ashlee Vance’s of Elon Musk. If you’ve seen The Social Network or read anything, literally ANYTHING, about Peter Thiel you will know that they are truly awful people (let’s not even talk about Travis Kalanick!). Borderline sociopaths with gargantuan egos and rampant megalomania. Which is what you need to innovate.
Innovation is not polite, it doesn’t say “excuse me” or wait for permission. It barges in and demands to be heard. That’s why it’s also called disruption. But most people and organisations aren’t prepared for this. They want innovation by committee wherein everyone gets a say and a compromise is reached. But the thing about innovators is that they don’t compromise. Take, for example, the legendary story of Steve Jobs’ reaction to the first iPod.
After years of research, development and prototyping, which cost millions, Jobs’ team finally presented him with a device the size of a cigarette packet containing 1,000 songs. A remarkable achievement. But what did he say? Not, “fantastic”, not “congratulations”, but “it’s too big”. Do you remember the first time you saw an iPod? What an incredible revelation it was? Well Jobs saw the very first one, before most of us even knew what an MP3 was, and his only thought was that it was too big.
Naturally his designers and engineers protested, wanting recognition for their groundbreaking achievement but you know what Jobs did next? He took the iPod, dropped it in a fish tank and pointed to the bubbles that arose from the device; proof that there was more space to be saved inside.
In our hyper-sensitive, trigger-warning world this kind of behaviour is rarely tolerated, which is by-and-large a good thing, but it is also why disruptive innovation rarely comes from inside corporations. Innovators struggle to thrive inside a corporate culture, which is why they set up on their own, in garages and cafes, where they can be themselves, however unbearable that may be, and do whatever it takes to innovate.
I’ve spent a large part of my working life in marketing and advertising, an industry built, in part, by disruptor David Ogilvy who had this to say about innovators:
Few of the great creators have plain personalities. They are cantankerous egotists, the kind of men who are unwelcome in modern corporations.
It’s true, so I implore you, next time you are faced with a “cantankerous egotist” take a look at his or her work before dismissing them as “difficult” or “disruptive” for these may be the very qualities you are looking for in an innovator.