Genius Is Not the Key

Some people decide early in their careers that innovation is something that other people do. You know the innovators: they’re geeks who mix plaids, stripes and polka dots, don’t shower, can’t carry on a normal conversation and aren’t reliable when deadlines loom and responsibility is essential.

Or they are other-worldly types mysteriously graced with gifts the rest of us will never know.

There’s only one problem with those archetypes: they’re not very accurate. And people who adopt them may just be copping out of opportunities to innovate on their own.

“Innovation isn’t a supernatural event — a preordained occurrence that only happens to certain people,” says Steve Trobak, managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based firm that provides strategic consulting and executive coaching to CEOs.

In fact, innovators aren’t all that different from the rest of us. “Innovators don’t see different things, they see things differently,” Trobak explains. He cites the case of Steve Jobs, who brought a host of new products to market and billions of dollars to Apple’s coffers because of the innovative technologies he developed.

There’s just one problem with that scenario. While it’s true that Jobs led the Apple team to develop the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, it’s also true that they didn’t invent the underlying technologies. MP3 players, smartphones, and tablet computers had all been around a few years when Apple’s products hit the market like successive tsunamis.

Jobs’ genius was his ability to use well-known technologies to develop innovative products by focusing on the user’s experience with the technology.

He did that first with the Apple Mac, which permitted people to be productive — even expressive — on personal computers by liberating them from the rigid and seemingly inscrutable grammar of DOS. While geekier types celebrated that DOS was more simple and straightfoward than earlier operating systems, Jobs taught computers how to respond to human perception and touch.

No doubt Jobs and the people he brought to his team had higher than normal intuitive aptitudes that permitted them to continue developing innovative products. But their experience also suggested that innovation is possible for the rest of us–if we just pay a little more attention to the important details of human nature and experience.

Trobak notes that great innovators “don’t go from zero-to-great in a heartbeat,” but rather “they stand on the shoulders of giants (and) see things a little bit differently.” His insight suggests that when it comes to innovation, humility and a resolve to pay attention may play a larger role than genius.

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