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How Ketchup Can Teach Us About Innovation

Jennifer Hansen is vice president of ad sales at The Walt Disney Company in Cleveland, OH and a member of the MIT EMBA class of 2015.

I’m not an inventor. I don’t develop drugs, research scientific cures, or create new forms of technology. “Innovation” used to be something I thought occurred on the technical and scientific side of the professional world.

However, the word “innovation” seems to be everywhere these days. For a solid week in school, I learned all about something called "Innovation Advantage." At a conference the following week, the theme was "Innovation through Failure." Each day, multiple posts on Twitter and LinkedIn mention "innovation" in some way. I like to think that this is more than just a "buzz word" — that innovation really means something.

It turns out that it means a great deal and applies to me much more than I previously thought. Is it a noun, verb or adjective? Surprisingly, it is all of those things. These insights on innovation from MIT’s EMBA program are giving me a new perspective — and making me rethink how I define true success.

The Original Innovators

If we think back to all of the great "innovators," what did they have in common? Yes, we all know them for creating something, whether it was an invention like electricity or the iPhone, or a theory or a process, or even new medicine or a roadway system. However, they did more than just invent or create an end product. Their true innovation was a process, and it happened on the path that led to the final outcome we know today.

What is Success?

We are conditioned to think that reaching the end goal is the success. And for many of us, we see this as the ONLY success. Getting the A on the test, landing the account, achieving a high rating on a hit TV show — these are all things that we celebrate. But stop and think about what made these things possible. Things like learning in class, relationship building, the creative process — aren’t those the real innovations?

When we try something, we assume it has two outcomes: success or failure. But isn't there really only one outcome? That outcome is information. It's not good and it's not bad. Rather, it's simply the insight we need to take the next step. And that next step leads to another action, which results in more information. That leads to another step, and the cycle continues.

Pay Attention, Innovation Whispers

Most of us don’t wake up in the morning and say, "I'm going to innovate today." It's a choice we make in how we view our personal and professional lives. We set goals for ourselves and that's a good thing. Those goals give us direction and purpose, both at work and at home. But instead of being so focused on a particular goal, maybe it's better to pay attention to the information along the way.Sometimes our goals need to change to take us somewhere even greater than we ever imagined. It's being open to these discoveries along the path to the goal that is true innovation.

57 Versions of Ketchup

They say we have the iPhone today because someone first thought of the iPad (and not the other way around). We have Heinz 57 today because there were 56 earlier versions. We have the game of baseball today not because someone just happened to invent it, but because it evolved from an informal military game. Without failing, changing and evolving, we would never have new and amazing outcomes.

Creating a New Mindset

"Innovation" feels a little scary and uncertain. There's this big unknown that doesn't have a safe and predictable outcome. Without innovation we may have certainty, but we would also just be standing still – never really going anywhere.

I have lived 44 years thinking very black and white, believing you are either right or wrong, and knowing I either succeed or fail, with very little acceptance of the "in-between." However, I’m learning at MIT that innovation is that "in-between" and this is what is truly important. Even though I may never be an inventor, I now know that I am indeed an innovator.

How do you define success? How do you innovate?

Originally Published: MIT Executive Insights Blog
Author: Jennifer Hansen