Being able to innovate constantly is about seeing opportunities and seizing them, but it’s also about knowing when to let something slip by. It is believed that William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings”. In business, I find it’s the same feeling of building something, pushing it out into the world, and sometimes letting it go. The line between a genius who is going nowhere and a genius innovator is being able to say “no”.
Here’s how entrepreneurs can avoid getting too attached to ideas, say no to distractions, and keep moving toward better results, even if it sometimes means leaving their darlings behind.
A declining culture of innovation
There is a direct link between declining entrepreneurship and big business, where people get used to hierarchy and long-term roles with predictable, minor growth. Atlantic reported that entrepreneurship has declined since the 1970s, with millennials being the least entrepreneurial of all generations. The article argues that while some industries, like technology, have celebrated entrepreneurs as role models, future generations see more and more big companies and fewer small businesses or startups and are less likely to take risks and d innovate themselves.
When it comes to innovation, starting something, no matter how small, is the first step. You can’t choose between several ideas or programs if you haven’t had the luck and the will to start them in the first place.
the harvard business review takes another position and segments entrepreneurs into productive and unproductive. The article also cites a Brookings Institution study, which found that in 2009, more businesses were closing than opening for the first time in three decades, in every state and every industry ( even high tech). What is the difference? Unproductive entrepreneurs create something to gain special status with the government or a big corporation, essentially not sharing their knowledge. Productive entrepreneurs create something that breaks the mold and benefits society by creating something new while being profitable.
This gives us a good idea of what innovations will and won’t be successful, which is a great starting point for budding entrepreneurs. It’s also a good indicator for seasoned entrepreneurs on what new programs will and won’t work.
How to get back to entrepreneurial thinking
Many of us are comfortable managing employees with an “up or out” growth mentality, but we fail to apply this to our own ideas. When I try something new or hire someone new, there’s the same period of adjustment and testing to see how it will work. Eventually, a decision has to be made, and the same goes for employees and ideas. Has there been growth, advancement or indication of future success? Otherwise, the people and/or the project must leave.
What if you can’t generate new ideas and you feel stuck? The Wall Street Journal (paywall) interviewed entrepreneurs and startup accelerator advisors and offered several key tips, including being aware of your pain points and immediate needs, talking to others, and looking to the past. For me, the most important point is that the first, second or third idea may not yet be the one with real potential. You have to keep going, keep creating and testing new ideas to overcome all obstacles.
There is a deadline that is important to respect. It’s tempting to look at something that works and go for it 100%. But deciding on a project or plan too soon and locking yourself into it completely stifles the ability to improve and adapt. This is the learning process, and it should be embraced. You’ll know more after a while, and you can use it to choose between several of your options when the time is right. If you totally opt for one option from the start, you don’t have the examples of other projects to compare and contrast. However, there comes a time when projects have to die. Successful entrepreneurs balance the testing period by giving the axe.
Let’s be clear, I’m not advocating taking on every project and every idea all the time. We live in a culture that values being busy, and it’s not for the best. If you ask someone, “How are you?” the common response is “Okay, busy.” But how often does this busy schedule actually achieve the goal of creating relevant new growth or generating insights that can be used to make decisions? Being busy can even lead to negative side effects on your body, such as loss of sleep and difficulty concentrating. Simply put, being busy can hurt your business.
All of this can be solved with the word “no” and a little prioritization. We are able to assess resources this way, but we are somehow unable to exercise this same scrutiny on ourselves. We also have limited resources, and when we try too hard, we don’t give enough attention and effort to one thing. By saying “no” respectfully, clearly, and often, we can get into the habit of keeping our goals within our target.
If I want to start a new project, but I also have another project in the works and another halfway through, I may have to make a choice. When testing a new business idea, technology, or process, I remind myself to stay objective, test ideas and results rationally, and know when to quit. It can be difficult to end a project that has invested so much time and resources, but it is more damaging to try to maintain it at the expense of other, more strained projects. There are endless new ideas to explore, and for them to have a chance, the less viable ideas must die.