A Lesson on Innovation from Steven Colbert

Reading an old Rolling Stone interview with Stephen Colbert, I was struck by this quote:

It’s interesting how by joking about the Colbert Nation, you made it exist.
Yeah, they want in on the fun. That was something we didn’t expect, because we joked about the Colbert Nation and then we said, “Oh shit, it’s real.” That’s an interesting thing, and that’s another improvisational aspect — that discovery is better than invention. We invented the Colbert Nation, but then we discovered it was real. We didn’t make it happen, they self-organized it. I love that relationship. We can’t always have it, and you can’t force that. You just have to acknowledge it. We’re always planting seeds with the show, and the challenge is, will we notice when a flower blooms, and then pick that flower?

We often think that to innovate, we have to come up with something new – something that’s never been tried, that will come out of left field and disrupt the status quo.  But the best innovations aren’t inventions at all, they’re discovery, reproduction, and nurturing of something little-known, but already proven successful.  The greatest ‘innovators’ on the tech scene weren’t to market with their products: Google wasn’t the first search engine, Apple wasn’t the first smartphone manufacturer, and Facebook wasn’t the first social network.  But each took a unique insight, market lesson, or positioning to bring out a product that’s now integrated into our lives.

Professional Services firms can be especially apt to fall into the innovation as invention trap.  I’ve worked with a number of firms who saw ‘new product development’ as creating marketing materials that they could pitch to new clients.  Most of the time, these brochures collect dust for a few months before recycling, and the PowerPoint pitch decks get lost on a Sharepoint site somewhere.

But if you can’t create a new product, how are professional services firms supposed to innovate?  Whenever I’ve seen successful innovation, it’s been through discovery.  First, the firms create an environment where professionals feel free to innovate and try new things, especially on their most trusted client relationships (planting seeds, in Colbert’s analogy).  This can be risky, because many firms are nervous to experiment and fail on their largest relationships, but these are also the clients who are most likely to pay for them to try.  Second, they’re great at paying attention, so they notice when a seed starts to bloom.  They constantly gather feedback from clients, write up case studies, and share knowledge within the firm.  Finally, they have the resources to pluck the most promising flowers,  which can look different depending on the innovation.  Sometimes, it means turning a promising team leader into a practice head, who can then grow other similar accounts, and other teams it means committing central resources to packaging and disseminating  the best practices that were learned on a project.

None of these steps are rocket science, but like growing flowers, they take time and patience, and other than careful tending, there’s very little you can do to accelerate the process.  That can be frustrating to impatient leaders, who want to feel like something is being done, but it’s also the only way to see the phenomenal success you can find from discovering innovation where you didn’t expect it.  Just look at Colbert’s show, which has earned seven Emmy nominations, spawned a SuperPAC, and has Space Treadmill named after him.

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