Be An Innovator

When I was on vacation last week, I read John Bogle’s book Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life.  In addition to be a superb book, it had a bunch of tasty little nuggets in it.  One of my favorites was “the three i’s – innovator, imitator, and idiot” that was attributed to Warren Buffett.

I thought of this nugget this morning when reading Fred Wilson’s post When Government Funds BusinessIn it, he concludes “When government funds business, it messes everything up.”  One of his examples is the delicious irony that Citi – which just got more government money – is running traditional print ads in the NY Times.

Nyt citi

Fred’s wife Joanne’s reaction to this is "We are paying for that ad. In a newspaper that less and less people read every day. No wonder they are in trouble".  Yup – I’d put that behavior in the idiot column.

However, I’m aware of some things going on at Citi that I’d put in the innovator column.  They aren’t public so I don’t think I can talk about them, but I’m amazed at how forward looking, innovative, potentially transformational, and relatively inexpensive these activities are.  They are the kind of fundamental investments that you’d hope major companies are making to stay relevant in the next decade.

While most people aren’t innovators, that’s ok.  Many American’s understand the importance of them and – when the innovators take leadership roles – they motivate the non-innovators to follow them.  In a twist on Buffett’s line, I’d suggest that if you apply it to leadership, you can segment leaders into three categories: innovators, imitators, and idiots.

When I think about my experiences with large companies, I see Buffett’s quip all over the place.  Their leaders include innovators, imitators, and idiots throughout the organization.  Same with government.  The challenge is the innovators – especially when they are in a culture that is playing defense or simply trying to survive – often get drowned out, discouraged, or marginalized.

I believe that one of the key foundations that America has been built on is the innovator.  At all levels of society, throughout history, the innovator has led, created change, and inspired greatness throughout our history.  People love to follow the innovator.  While the innovator is willing to take risks that might result in failure, not taking the risks often results in even greater failure.

My appeal to all leaders in big companies – and in government – is to innovate.  Play offense. If you don’t know how to do this, look around for the innovators in your organization and team up with them.  Challenge the imitators to step up their game.  And don’t tolerate the idiots in any way, shape, or form.

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  • http://www.pindropsoup.com Dave Michels

    This is a great piece Brad. Thanks.

    For many of us, we play all three roles at different times in our careers. At large companies, sometimes we get assigned the roles. For example, 10 years ago I got assigned the role of Y2K Czar – I thought the role was idiotic and wanted nothing to do with it, but there was no escape from it. I had to meet with all the departments and vendors and go over their Y2K readiness and to do it right meant asking detailed questions. I remember meeting with Public Service/Xcel and going over their readiness to ensure we would not lose power…. I was doing my job, but I sure felt like an idiot.

    I can honestly say I have played all three roles. They all have their challenges – being innovative can be like pushing boulders uphill when no one gets it. I was in the travel industry in the mid 90s and I was pushing the Internet (along with a core group of really smart people). But we were constantly being pushed down. No computer in the company that had Internet access was allowed to be connected to our internal servers. What a joke. It was a like congressional hearing trying to convince the leadership team that the Internet offered more than porn. That company hasn't fared so well.

    Lately, over the past few years, I thought I was playing the innovater, but in hindsight I was the idiot. That is the risk of being the innovator – you are pushing a new reality that may indeed be wrong – or in my case was too dependent on too many external variables.

    John Chambers at Cisco is pushing his new way of realizing innovation. I am not a big Cisco fan, but it resonates that his model of these tribunals may be on to something. So much depends on execution. I was privileged to be in a very innovative group at GE for a few years, but that didn't last long after some key executive changes. Like Atlas Shrugged – sometimes the innovators all pack up and leave.

    Thanks for the post.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

      Dave – thanks for the comment.  Great examples – and a good articulation of the struggle with being the innovator.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jud_valeski3968 Jud Valeski

    funny you posted that. I saw that ad at the bottom of the times today and had the exact same reaction!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/markedone markedone

    Now we really need to choose innovative way of development, it's for sure.

  • http://blog.ninthyard.com Damon

    Is it possible to become an innovator without first being an idiot?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      Absolutely.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/RohitK RohitK

    When some one said that World is flat people started calling him idiot. But what happened at last everybody now believing about this.
    @ Damon. Yo are absolutely right
    To show ur innovative idea u have to proof ur self as Idiot..then people will try ur idea as a fun and then success will come..

    so true leader some times prove them selves as idiot. before saying their orginal idea…

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/RohitK RohitK

    When some one said that World is flat people started calling him idiot. But what happened at last everybody now believing about this.
    @ Damon. Yo are absolutely right
    To show ur innovative idea u have to proof ur self as Idiot..then people will try ur idea as a fun and then success will come..

    so true leader some times prove them selves as idiot. before saying their orginal idea…

  • http://www.logodesignconsultant.com/website_design.html website design

    yes damon, it is certainly possible to become an innovator without being an idiot first. but the problem is that majority considers innovators as abnormal or idiots because they do some thing different.

  • http://www.replica-china.net replcia handbags

    Mike, great point. This is one of our goals at IntenseDebate – we want to simplify your commenting experience. With this in mind, we enable commenters who have created IntenseDebate accounts to track comments made on a post via RSS readers, including NewsGator.

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