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Embracing the Challenges that Spur Innovation



Embracing the Challenges that Spur Innovation

Think about a challenging problem that you just couldn’t figure out. If you knew that the fate of your career (or your company) depended on finding a solution, what might you try?

We spend much of our lives avoiding difficult situations and, in the process, we miss incredible opportunities for innovation. A 16th-century proverb says, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” It also happens to be the mother of innovation. When your back is against the wall, the will to survive brings about an incredible sense of focus — which is especially powerful in a multitasking world littered with distractions.

Shortly after the 2008 financial crisis, a Harvard Business Review article pointed out that the scarcity forced on companies as a result of the recession actually created a hidden accelerator for innovation. It created the necessity to find new solutions.

Focus and necessity are extremely powerful tools that can give ordinary people the ability to do the extraordinary. To create the focus needed to spur innovation, try embracing these challenges that most of us attempt to avoid.

1. Create a crisis

A crisis is a time of difficulty, trouble, or danger. But a crisis is also an incredible opportunity for innovation. It creates an environment that enables people to abandon their previously held boundary conditions and focus on what really matters.

That’s especially true when people’s lives are literally at stake, as was the case with the Apollo 13 space mission in 1970. Shortly after launch, one of the spacecraft’s oxygen tanks exploded, causing the other to fail. As a result, there was limited power and the astronauts were running out of clean air to breathe. Their chances of returning safely to Earth were in peril. Over four days, the Mission Control team worked in tandem with the increasingly frail astronauts to find a way to get them safely home by doing things like cobbling together a carbon dioxide scrubber from spare parts.

Another example is Ford Motor Company’s rise from the verge of bankruptcy in 2008. Bill Ford had tried for years to focus the company on making great cars instead of becoming mired in internal politics. Then in 2006, he was forced to mortgage the family legacy and pledge the trademarked blue Ford oval as collateral to keep the company solvent. This crisis created a focus that allowed the company to break through decades-old barriers and make real changes under the guidance of new CEO Alan Mullaly.

A crisis focuses everyone on the real problem at hand. If you’re desperate for innovation, find a crisis to embrace or create one of your own. Make people believe that business, as usual, will no longer work, that they must innovate or die (in a business sense). It’s much more likely that they’ll find a way forward.

2. Burn the boats

Removing any kind of backup plan is a compelling way to create a focus on the task at hand. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese general and author of The Art of War, offered the following advice: “When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.”

While it’s doubtful he read Sun Tzu, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés used that tactic during his invasion of Mexico in 1520. Once his troops were ashore, Cortés ordered them to strip everything of value from the ships and then had the ships sunk offshore. He’s reported to have said that he left his men with “nothing to rely on save their own hands — and the certainty that they must either win the land or die in the attempt.”

Most companies struggle with this concept. They think they’re hurting themselves in the short term, and while that’s true, it can be done. When Netflix split off its very successful DVD by mail rental business to focus all its efforts on streaming TV service, it was burning the boat that had been funding the profits of the company. This move forced Netflix to make streaming a success. Sometimes, this can be as simple as saying yes to a customer request to delivering something you have no idea how to make happen.

When you take away your backup plan, you force the team to go all-in and make it necessary to find a solution to the challenge in front of them.

3. Embrace rivalries

Rivalries are a useful tool to focus a team and motivate it to do things it might otherwise believe are either too difficult or not worth the effort. Gavin Kilduff, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said, “For most businesses, identifying a competitor and then focusing on outperforming them can increase motivation and identification within the organization.” He makes a distinction between competition and rivalry. A rivalry is built on relationships and it’s more personal, which drives a higher level of focus.

The rivalry between Coke and Pepsi became so intense in the 1980s that it pushed Coke to abandon its original recipe in search of something new to compete with Pepsi’s famous taste test experiments. In this case, New Coke was a consumer flop, but it demonstrates the power of a rivalry to push people to try something new.

The ongoing rivalry between Ford and Chevy, which has been raging since the upstart Chevy and its parent company GM, which overtook Ford’s top sales position in the 1930s. Since then, the two companies have used their rivalry to spur innovations from automotive financing, to the ability to custom order your vehicle, to muscle cars with ever more horsepower, and now to lighter vehicles made mostly from aluminum.

What do you do if you don’t have a rival to compete with? You create one by framing your business problem in the right way. When developing the LED light bulb, the innovators focused their rivalry on the big lighting companies that had been making energy-wasting incandescent bulbs for more than a century. It became personal to prove to the world that there was a better way.

Focus and necessity are critical elements for innovation success. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to innovate, but are struggling to find a really good challenge to focus the team, don’t be afraid to create one of your own.

Chuck Swoboda is Innovator-in-Residence at Marquette University, President of Cape Point Advisors and retired Chairman and CEO of Cree, Inc. He is co-inventor on more than 25 patents covering LEDs and lighting technology, and has over 30 years of experience in the technology business. Additionally, he is an author, speaker and host of the “Innovators on Tap” podcast. His new book is "The Innovator’s Spirit: Discover the Mindset to Pursue the Impossible" (Fast Company, May 5, 2020). Learn more at