The frustration of innovation: Lessons from history

Paul Sloane
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A portrait of William Shakespeare is pic
Shakespeare borrowed ideas and improved on them - why can't you? (Source: Getty)

It seems that innovation is now an imperative for every company and every chief executive. Leaders all stress the importance of agility, entrepreneurship and innovation in their organisations, yet most of them are frustrated by slow progress.

What can we do to boost our lateral thinking and creativity? How can we and our teams become the innovative pioneers we aspire to be?

One way is to mimic the approaches of great innovators from the past. What did they do? And which of their insights can we apply to our work?

Recruit people who are cleverer than you

Woody Allen once said “I hire great people and then I exploit them. I look like a hero – that’s the trick.” He gives the actors in his films the freedom to work on their own initiative.

Allen tells his stars what his goals are and then asks for their suggestions. Very often, other people’s best ideas are better than yours, so don’t be afraid to go with their instinct.

Read more: Meet the most influential British innovator in the world

Swim against the tide

When she set up The Body Shop, Anita Roddick deliberately did the reverse of what the industry leaders at the time were doing. She saw that cosmetic stores were stuffy places that sold toiletries, perfumes and medicinal creams in expensive packaging and pretty bottles.

What better way to innovate than doing the total opposite of the norm? She packaged the goods in her shops in low-cost plastic bottles with plain labelling and offered refills in store.

It saved money, and made a statement that the contents of the package – rather than the packaging – were what mattered.

World Summit Of Nobel Peace Laureates Held In Chicago
Muhammad Yunus shrunk a traditional business model to create a new, innovative market (Source: Getty)

Innovate by minimising

Traditionally, banks would only make large loans that required some form of collateral, leaving them exclusive to those who already held wealth.

Muhammad Yunus founded the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and pioneered microfinance by making very small loans to groups of poor women and asking for no security.

By shrinking his business model he created a new, innovative market. The resulting economic growth and development led to him receiving the Nobel Prize.

Read more: Why Britain and the US are streets ahead of Europe in innovation

Be promiscuous in your collaborations

David Bowie kept looking for fresh ideas by collaborating with a wide range of disparate people. These collaborations led to global innovations in style and musical direction.

He didn’t simply recycle his early success, but searched for fresh ideas. Although this shocked and annoyed some original fans, it earned him new ones in the process.

David Bowie's unorthodox collaborations led to global innovations in style and musical direction (Source: Getty)

Mix with people outside your comfort zone

Hans Christian Andersen travelled to the lunatic asylum where his grandfather had been institutionalised to listen to the stories of warders and inmates. Hearing the stories of people outside of his usual circles spurred him on to create ingenious and inspirational fairy tales such as the Tinder Box and the Wild Swans. Search out unfamiliar people, environments, and situations if you want unorthodox and radical ideas.

When one line of approach fails, try another

Use a setback as a spur to innovation. Levis Strauss originally set out to manufacture tents and wagon covers. Finding no market for these items, he adapted, instead using the stout canvas to make durable trousers for miners.

Rather than getting bogged down with an idea that wasn’t working, he took a step back, innovated, and produced what his customers needed.

Read more: The UK is home to more innovative universities than just one other country

Borrow with pride

The greatest writer in the English language borrowed most of the plots for his plays from previous works.

If borrowing and developing storylines from others was good enough for Shakespeare, then it is good enough for the rest of us.

We can benefit from his technique of taking a good idea and developing it with our own individual notions and style.

Based on Think Like an Innovator – 76 inspiring lessons from the world’s greatest thinkers and innovators. By Paul Sloane published by Pearson.