The common narrative of innovation is competitive. The image is a footrace — innovators sprint to push the cutting edge, chasing new ideas into uncharted space, constantly glancing back to check whether they’re ahead. Victory is glorious, and the winner somehow looks like Usain Bolt, flawless in form, unfazed by the race. The reality of most innovation looks more like a team obstacle course — and the teams are built across companies, across sectors, and sometimes don’t even have the exact same finish line in mind.
Have you heard of the Tough Mudder? It’s an absurdly intense, exhausting experience. (According to people much tougher and muddier than I ever aspire to be.) Envision big, rag-tag groups, covered in mud, slogging through tons of different obstacles over miles. See them boosting each other on knees to climb up high walls, carrying each other through bodies of water, inventing ways to handle unforeseen terrain together. They share a grueling experience, many don’t stick with it to the end, and people are totally haggard as they cross the finish line in waves. This image, while less awe-inspiring, is a lot more like the experience of most innovators.
The reason is that most innovators are not specialists in a slim, clearly-defined scientific field, but retrofitters, making technologies work in the real world.
The narrative of the cutting edge is a race to illuminate darkness — to discover the next (linear) progression of technology first and, for a business, bring it to market. But most businesses don’t succeed at the cutting edge — most are really about appropriateness. Businesses that succeed most often find solutions that already exist, and apply them to a problem where they’re not already widely used. Sometimes they take novel tech, and show the world how useful it is, or surmount logistical challenges to make it cost-effective or distributable, to bring it to market. The point is — the darkness is usually already illuminated when the “innovative” businesses get there. The opportunity isn’t invention, actually. It’s making technology useful.
As a tech startup founder in a burgeoning space, my team and I come up with new ideas and tools all the time — we do invent. But most of our thinking is about taking received wisdom, and making it practicable for our customers. And our biggest challenge isn’t even there. The most important problem for us is showing the world the potential of the practical stuff we make — because they’re not used to it yet. That’s market creation. And it’s a challenge we share with every one of our “competitors”. Those competitors are basically our teammates in the business’s Tough Mudder.
I meet a lot of other founders in my space — people doing adjacent work. Nine times out of ten, they’re excited to share what they know and amplify each other as much as we can. Because we’re part of the same campaign. We’re out there trying to build a market for something we believe can work — pushing boundaries to create the space, not vying for terrain within it.
Sure, we collaborate because we commiserate, because we’re peers and can understand each other. But we share experiences and resources largely because we share a goal. Our landscape may become a competitive one eventually — but not when it’s at its most innovative. When we move from collaboration to competition, it’ll be when we believe the market is fully carved out — and we’re not pushing its boundaries and growing it further. I’m delighted that the greatest innovators are likely to live in a collaborative landscape, not fight for victory in a competitive one. Because that’s the kind of world I want to build.
About the Author
Sally is a systems thinker and a humanist, working on the systems that shape how we work to make them actually work for people. As the Founder of Group Project, she designs data-driven and human tools that transform workplaces by putting talent first. She’s driven by the belief that when every person has the opportunity to reach their full potential, both employees and organizations thrive.