Discipline – the indispensable ingredient in innovation

Discipline - the magic ingredient in innovationBack in Thomas Edison’s day, perspiration wasn’t cause for shame. “Genius,” the serial inventor declared, “is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  In other words, talent will only get you so far without diligent effort.

Journalist/writer Malcolm Gladwell makes the same point in Outliers, his exploration of the key elements of success. It’s a combination of factors, he argues, and the mastery that separates the successful from the rest doesn’t come without hard work – 10,000 hours of it. One notable example: The Beatles. In their early years, the band spent extended periods in Hamburg, Germany, playing very long hours and in diverse styles around the club scene, which helped to build both their reputation and their skills base. “It is not the brightest who succeed,” Gladwell writes. “Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

The late management thinker, Peter Drucker, argued for the same discipline to be applied to innovation. “In innovation, as in any other endeavour, there is talent, there is ingenuity, and there is knowledge,” Drucker wrote in 1985. “But when all is said and done, what innovation requires is hard, focused and purposeful work. If diligence, persistence, and commitment are lacking, talent, ingenuity, and knowledge are of no avail.”

Former Goldman Sachs executive, Scott Belsky, named his creative services business and an annual forum after Thomas Edison’s famous quote. “In a world full of conferences dedicated to inspiring ideas, we created one focusing solely on their execution,” Belsky says. “It was a grand experiment: would people want to spend two days talking about the laborious and despised process of turning ideas into action?”

Apparently so. The 99% Conference now sells out within weeks, highlighting the growing appreciation of what innovation researcher Vijay Govindarajan calls “the other side of innovation”. Belsky expanded his thoughts in a best-selling book written primarily for creatives. ”Ideas don’t happen because they are great – or by accident,” he writes. “Far from being some stroke of creative genius, (the) capacity to make ideas happen can be developed by anyone… Why would Apple, a company known for new ideas and its ability to ‘think different’, also be one of the most organised companies on the planet? The answer is that – like it or not – organisation is a major force for making ideas happen.”

As The Beatles, the late Steve Jobs and countless other elite performers demonstrate, discipline matters. When it comes to turning ideas into reality, structure, process, and diligent practice are essential. It may not be as glamorous or free-flowing as innovation’s front end, but as American basketball great, Dr Julius Erving, reportedly said: “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”

image credit: hoopdoctors.com

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Plan to be Punched in the FaceA former journalist and strategic communication specialist, Josie Gibson set up a CFO network, among other things, and now works with companies on creativity and innovation initiatives.  www.pourquoi.com.au

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5 Responses to Discipline – the indispensable ingredient in innovation

  1. Paul Schempp says:

    Great blog Josie! One clarification, if I may. The research Gladwell cites was conducted by Anders Ericsson (professor of psychology, Florida State Univ). Anders’ research found that expertise was derived from 10,000 of ‘deliberate practice’. That is, it wasn’t just 10,000 of effort, or even just practice, but rather practice that had a specific focus on improvement–in most cases under the guidance of a coach or mentor. People got good because they made the concerted effort to improve. Those findings, I believe, are completely in line with your thesis that discipline is an indispensable ingredient of innovation. Again, well done and thank you!

    • Very good point, Paul. In organisations with successful track records, innovation (or whatever term they use to describe it) doesn’t just ‘happen’… it’s a deliberate approach that aligns many elements around a clear strategic purpose. As you’d know, that’s how you encourage persistence and build resilience and, ultimately, consistent high performance.

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