| Feb 2, 2021

Innovation Is Really, Really Hard – Here’s How You Make It Happen

Real innovation takes real hard work -- it's not a product of solitary genius.
Man holding lightbulb scaled
By Dan O'Connor |

<1 minutes

Once upon a time, four Hollywood directors met for lunch at a little diner called Hidden City Cafe in Point Richmond. The year was 1994, and Toy Story would soon be released, changing animated movies forever. The directors were John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft, and at the table that day, four new movie ideas were discussed that would go on to become some of Pixar’s biggest hits. Those films? A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., WALL-E, and Finding Nemo.

If you know anything about Hollywood, where things move at a glacial pace, then this probably seems like an incredible story. Four hit films ideated in a single brainstorming session? Well, it is incredible, which is why most people in the movie industry have heard about it before.

It’s also misleading. It paints a false picture of what led up to a series of great accomplishments, and even Stanton admitted as much, years later.

“I’m trying to dispel a little bit of it, before it turns too mythical,” he said about the legendary story during an interview. “The truth is, there are people who worked really hard at making things like ‘Monsters’ and ‘Nemo’ really turn into the great stories they were way after those lunches.”

This is just what we do as people. We boil things down to their simple, most memorable essence. The problem arises when we want to do something similar but don’t really know how, because we’ve dissociated the results from the actual process.

An Innovator’s Life

This happens in business frequently. Thousands of would-be innovators fail to live up to their potential, because they either:

a) develop tunnel vision for one “big idea” and never put the work in to make it happen
b) falsely believe innovation to be the product of some “special sauce,” and therefore deem themselves incapable of it.

But that’s not the way it is. Innovation is not sexy. And it’s not just a “groundbreaking idea.” It’s taking those ideas and deconstructing them into hundreds of parts and then testing, learning, refining, and iterating. It’s a deliberate, uncomfortable, and sometimes masochistic pursuit. It’s not breaking down a barrier – it’s breaking down one after another after another.

Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb after about 1,000 tries, according to the history books. When someone asked him how it felt to fail that much, he said, “I didn’t fail a thousand times – the lightbulb was an invention of a thousand steps!”

Henry Ford bankrupted himself five times before succeeding with Ford Motor Co.

R.H. Macy tried seven times before New York City was ready for Macy’s.

There are plenty of stories like these, and they are the ones that creative minds should focus on – not the rare exceptions of a few smart people getting together and dreaming up something new and glamorous.


I see this very regularly in industries that I deal with. There are so many bright minds out there who are confused about how disruption actually occurs, so they don’t try and accomplish it themselves. The most toxic thought a prospective entrepreneur or innovator can entertain is, “If it was a good idea, someone else would have done it already.

In digital healthcare, this problem presents itself as a rote acceptance of the sad fact that roughly only five percent of available medical data is available and usable to researchers. Why? The easy answer is “because of legislation,” or “because of insufficient technology,” but ultimately, both of those could be replaced with “because of a lack of innovation.”

Five percent. Just five. Imagine how quickly medical research and healthcare practice could advance if researchers had access to the whole hundred.

What do we need to get there? Not much, honestly. Certain privacy laws have already paved the way. The technology itself – more or less – already exists. All that’s necessary now is for the right kind of people to take on the task. People who understand that things don’t exist because no one has made them yet, not because they can’t.

The “Me” in Team

Does that sound like you? Someone who calls B.S. on the notion that innovation happens because of solitary genius? Someone who has the courage and gumption to take on painfully tedious and incremental work? Congratulations – you’re an innovator at heart!

However, your chances of success will be greatly multiplied if you can integrate yourself within a team that shares those beliefs and values. That team isn’t just other smart, skilled individuals like yourself; it will need to include investors and leaders who trust in your ability to define and produce meaningful results.

So, to all the creative-minded, critically-thinking, would-be innovators out there … get to it! Put yourself into the orbit of others who want to do hard work on important, complex problems. Out of those orbits, coalesce a team committed to finding a common solution. And then, be brave. Confront the hard stuff. You may just invent the next lightbulb.

Dan O'Connor
Executive Author

Chief Commercial Officer, Ciox Health

Dan currently serves as Ciox Health’s Chief Commercial Officer, bringing 15 years of health consulting and buy-side software and services investing to the business. view profile


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