How Innovators Become Dinosaurs

It happens all the time. A person or company invents something that changes the world. They enjoy great success and perhaps even follow it up with another big thing. But a few years pass and their ability to innovate dwindles. How does this happen? What transforms a visionary into a has-been?

Innovation is essentially problem solving. We see something broken and we are compelled to try and fix it. It could be a sluggish system, an obsolete product, a void in the marketplace, you name it.

Many people believe innovation is for the young. This may be true for many internet start-ups but generally age has nothing to do with it. Henry Ford was in his 40’s when his company launched the Model T. Martha Stewart was 41 when she published her first book and 49 when she launched her magazine. Frank Lloyd Wright was 70 years old when he experienced his surge of success.

In fact, innovators are increasingly getting older. A study of Nobel prize winners over the last 100 years shows average ages on the rise.* 

So what are the factors that diminish our ability to innovate? Is it because we run out of ideas? Not likely. Ideas are infinite. I believe it’s primarily three things: loyalty, fear and focus

1) Loyalty

When you introduce something innovative into the world and achieve great success, you become immovably loyal to your formula. You might even repeat it a few times to greater success. 

The problem is, the world will copy you. Soon your cherished formula is commonplace and no longer innovative. However, this doesn’t stop you from using it over and over because you are hopelessly loyal. You tell yourself, “It worked before and it will work again!”

Some people and corporations are so loyal to their proven formulas, they are like captains who go down with a sinking ship, stubbornly refusing to believe what’s happening. 

Why is it so difficult to abandon formulas and reinvent? Why are brands so loyal to their established image, even when it becomes stale? Why does every great musician seem to become boring and irrelevant over time?

Very few innovators and artists seem to successfully reinvent themselves after a period of ten or twenty years. They are simply too loyal to the past. But there are additional factors.

2) Fear

When you are young and scrappy and broke, you take bigger risks because you don’t have far to fall. With success comes financial security. But also altitude. The ground looks very far away and you begin to worry about making a misstep. So you fearfully play it safe and stick to your proven formula. Which almost always fails.

Avoiding these two pitfalls is easier said than done. The obvious answer is to stay reckless and abandon stale formulas. And realize that everyone experiences fear—that it’s only threatening if you let it paralyze you.

3) Focus

Following your initial success you try to grow your audience. That means shifting away from your early-adopting, passionate, core audience in order to appeal to the masses. Which usually requires dumbing down your product. Which grows your base but alienates your core. 

This shift in audience focus can bring financial success but can result in eventual disaster. The masses are fickle. They’re not loyal. They are easily drawn away by a lower cost product. So you react by making it cheaper to keep them buying. And so begins a downward spiral. 

That might be an oversimplification, but it’s essentially what happens. Companies get big, then get bad, then fall apart.

These are three powerful forces which cause us to fail. So how do we avoid becoming victims of our own success?

There is one approach which I believe can cure all three ills. There are other names for it, but I call it, The Discomfort Factor. 

The more innovative and unfamiliar something is, the more difficult it is to predict how well it will be received. It could be a huge success or a giant flop. But since there’s no precedent, your uncertainty creates an incredibly uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach. This is The Discomfort Factor. (Or, as someone else put it, “Dance with the fear.”**)

Discomfort might just be the key to continued success. If you learn to thrive on it, you are more likely to continually innovate. And if you stick to your passionate, core audience and grow slowly instead of chasing after the fickle masses, you will help ensure longevity.


*Age and Great Invention by Benjamin F. Jones

**Quote by Seth Godin