Innovation, not originality, is the key to better business.
Strategic Issues

Innovation, not originality, is the key to better business.

March 25, 2013

by Tony Vidler

innovate_738694911Everyone wants to grow their business, and everyone is looking for new ideas to do it.

Everyone wants the magical original idea that nobody else has ever thought of before, that will guarantee results quickly.  And most think the answer lies in coming up with an original idea.

Many advisers confuse “original” ideas with innovation though. Original ideas are not the same as innovation. It is true that science and technology throw up entirely new ideas and methods for us almost daily it seems.  But in sales and marketing original thinking is not be the panacea many hope for.

But then…it depends on how you define “original” doesn’t it?

For example; nobody knows or remembers who invented the wheel.  Yet, THAT was truly original thought.  It was the sort of technological breakthrough in thought and design (and implementation of concept) that changed the world and was completely new thinking.

All of us can think of people who have done clever things with wheels since then though can’t we?  They’ve arranged them in new ways, or used them to achieve outcomes that nobody thought possible….and THAT is innovation.  Innovation is thinking of new ways to use existing knowledge – stringing known concepts and ideas together in new ways is innovation.

What triggered this line of thinking was a recent experience with an adviser who was looking for the new cunning idea that would guarantee success.  The adviser was disappointed that I didn’t have it on hand to deliver….let’s leave aside the irony of someone thinking they needed an original idea, but they were going to get it delivered neatly packaged from someone they were hiring by the hour – and then get to keep it all to themselves.

This particular adviser had got to the point of thinking that his big original thought would be something to do with how he used social media.  It would be the THING, that us old folk didn’t get, that he’d be able to use in a way nobody had ever thought of before.

I showed him this picture of a whole bunch of people thinking they were being especially clever at a moment in time:


I don’t know about you, but I just think it looks like a lot of people being silly.  Not an original thought between them.

Like many young people before (including myself at  one time I am sure) he discounted the importance of knowing the paths already well trodden.  Knowing and understanding what has been tried before, and why it did or did not work, is the key to being innovative.  It is combining the old and the new that leads to innovation – it is not just about dropping the old.

While originality is to be applauded and encouraged, we must first learn to do well those things that have been proven to lead to success.  Many good men and women have failed in this business because they decided to chart their own courses before they learned the rules of navigation.  Others learned by those mistakes and we should too. We haven’t time to make all the same mistakes others have. Those who spurn learning prepared sales presentations are wrong.  They work.  They have worked for others, they are field and time tested and they will work for you if you will learn them and use them.   Lots of time later, when you are established, you can compose your own sure-fire sales getter.  If you are wrong, you’ve always got the old tried and true to fall back on.   If you try your own now and it does not work, and it is likely not to (how can you possibly know more as a green rookie than that which life insurance companies have learned over nearly two centuries of trial and error) – you are looking for a new job.”

This is attributed to Alden C. Palmer, and was delivered in a presentation titled the “Penalty of Being Original” in 1959, and it was paraphrased by Fraser A. Hale later in another book.  There remains a fundamental truth in this text today.

To truly innovate in financial services we must understand the old methods and ways of doing things – and pick out the best parts of them – and then blend them with the new technology and information to do things differently, better, and smarter.

Trying to ignore or abandon the past, and the knowledge of how humans have worked for many thousands of years now, simply to be original is dangerous and the odds of success are not high.

But taking that existing knowledge – “the wheel” – and working out how to combine it with other technology and thinking up new applications is innovative.

In innovation is immense reward.

How does “what you already know” combine with “what you are learning now” to create a “new way” of being better in your business?  If you can keep asking that question, and come up with new answers repeatedly over time, you will be innovating.


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