Do credibility and innovation mix?


Cover of “Poke the Box”

Is it possible to have both credibility with the Establishment and freedom to innovate?

Seth Godin captures it beautifully in this snippet from his latest book, Poke the Box (2011), in which he encourages people to create and market new, valuable goods and services. Here he summarizes the “paradox of success”:

People with no credibility or resources rarely get the leverage they need to bring their ideas to the world.

People with credibility and resources are so busy trying to hold onto them that they fail to bring their provocative ideas to the world.

Bingo. In two sentences he explains why new, fresh, promising ideas face such a challenge in getting their due, and why people and organizations who have “made it” sometimes become timid and cautious.

Risking credibility

There are exceptions to this dynamic, and not surprisingly they come from very successful enterprises that are in a position to risk some street cred.

Remember when Apple introduced its iPad? Many reviewers and computer industry gurus scoffed at this odd cross between a netbook computer and a smart phone, wondering if Apple had invested a ton of money and marketing into a clunker of a product that would soon disappear.

I felt the same way. I thought the iPad was a silly indulgence that had very little practical use. However, every time I stepped into an Apple store, I’d find myself playing with the iPads. And once the iPad 2 was announced, I knew I was a goner. (I now use mine regularly.)

Apple invented a market, created the conditions for that product to thrive (almost singlehandedly introducing the term “apps” into our lexicon), and now dominates that market — while its competitors serve up bad imitations.

Responsible risk taking

Okay, so Apple wasn’t exactly the corporate equivalent of Braveheart when it rolled out the iPad. Had it failed, customers would still be gobbling up Macs and iPhones. But it did demonstrate a willingness to be laughed at by those in the know…while saving the last laughs for itself.

Organizations and individuals who have established their credibility may have to make a judgment call on the worthiness of advancing a cutting edge idea or product, especially one that could undermine hard-earned credibility if it fails. But those who who play it safe often lose their edge and become pretty ordinary.

Starting out from scratch

That still leaves the question of folks at the starting gate. What if you’re a newcomer, an unknown, a novice, but you have a great idea that represents out-of-the-box thinking?

You’ll need perseverance and resourcefulness, plus a dose of good luck and the right timing.

However, because you’re not a known or prominent commodity, it’s possible that you’ll be greeted with dismissiveness rather than derision. There are advantages to being taken too lightly, not the least of which is the ability to move forward quietly, however haltingly, while the Establishment pretty much ignores you.

Once your idea or product gains some traction, people will take notice, and you may find yourself creating a new market or movement. This, of course, will grant you a big dose of credibility, in which case you’ll have to figure out what to do the next time you get a neat new idea.

8 responses

  1. MTwo such examples of lost opportunities are:
    IBM and Microsoft, Hoover and Dyson

    Companies who think that there’s a risk on what could become a great product should finance it in a start-up. Like this they will not be out of the boat or in it… they only be part of the expedition. The boat can be acquired if the expedition was successful.

  2. Ah, Seth Godin. The guy who wrote the best non-techie description ever of the phenomenon known as yak shaving.

    [MIT AI Lab, after 2000: orig. probably from a Ren & Stimpy episode.] Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you’re working on.

    • Lisa, this is HILARIOUS, and helps to explain why it’s so difficult to make meaningful change in organizations larger than, say, two people.

      Personally, it surely explains life in academe.

      • There are days when I not only shave the yak, but give it a mani-pedi and cook its lunch. I can relate. Such is modern, layered life, but at least having a funny way to describe it takes a little of the tension out 🙂

  3. I think you first need to create a successful track record for yourself and be generous with giving credit to everyone
    who helps you achieve it, from the top administrator right down to the lowest guy in the maintenance department. Keep building the track record to where it’s so impressive that no matter what you ask for, people will want to give it to you because they know you are going to make them look good and feel great. Then, when you finally come up with the mother of all ideas, the people who have been in your court all along are going to fund and support it. It’s called team-building. Good administrators look for this in an employee. Bad ones feel threatened and don’t have a clue. It really separates the wheat from the rye; empires were never built on zero risk.

    • Laura, I think this is a great ideal. But as I thought about it, I realized that with the workplace anti-bullying movement, very few of its current leaders had any kind of a public track record. Gary & Ruth Namie were virtual unknowns, as were many of the researchers who have built scholarly reputations for their work.

  4. Kurt Vonnegut said it well in his book, Bluebeard:

    “For what it is worth: Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.

    “The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise, the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

    “The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius–a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. ‘A genius working alone,’ he says, ‘is invariably ignored as a lunatic.’

    “The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. ‘A person like that working alone,’ says Slazinger, ‘can only yearn out loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be.’

    “The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain anything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pig-headed they may be. ‘He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting,’ says Slazinger. ‘Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.'”

    My problems started some 30 years ago as workplace bullying, but ended in a generalized type of persecution, which many suffer. See: and

    There is no one effectively addressing this more widespread bullying and persecution, including thought reading and thought transmission, a patent for which technology was first granted in 1974, just two years before my problems began, and which continue to this day. I am now trying to get the FBI to admit to these phenomena, also known as gang stalking, cause stalking, organized stalking, and more.

    Please also see my book, entitled, Nowheresville, Everywhere, Earth, with which I competed for the Pulitzer in 2009. If you are a member of the media or a college professor, you can request a free review copy by calling my publisher, AuthorHouse, at (888) 280-7715, M-F between 9a and 5p ET. I would love to have someone review the book, because no one has. . .dared to. . .to date!

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