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Being an expert navigator is the key to innovation success

Innovators must prepare for their journey like adventurers: studying the conditions and being prepared to respond to dynamic elements along their path.

Whenever Swiss explorer Sarah Marquis tells people about her newest expedition, she gets the same reaction: “You’re crazy!” If she listened to these people, she’d cease to explore at all.

Marquis is an adventurer who’s spent much of her adult life trekking solo through some of the world’s most forbidding regions, from deserts to jungles to mountain ranges, living off the land and blazing her own trails. In 2014, she was named Adventurer of the Year by the National Geographic Society. Her experiences underline the importance of navigation when venturing into the unknown.

She emphasizes that successful navigation starts with preparation. For a three-month expedition, Marquis typically spends two years learning about the area and planning the route and logistics, adding intense workouts during the second year. She also has to reach out to potential sponsors and supporters. And that means crafting an engaging story about the forthcoming journey.

Much of what Marquis needs to do to prepare is analogous to what innovators should do when trying to bring their ideas to life or challenge the status quo. For their ideas to survive, they also must anticipate the likely threats, asking themselves: What “language” do people speak in this organization or sector, and do I understand them? What historical tensions may I encounter? What gear will I need to take? Where will I find additional resources along the way? What dangers should I take into account? Whose support will be essential, and how can I convince them to support me?

And then, once innovators start the journey, they — like explorers — need to transition from planned maneuvers to dynamic navigation to survive in a hostile and changing environment, avoiding threats and seizing opportunities.


Whether working independently or within an organization, innovators often delude themselves in two ways.

First, they overestimate the ability of their breakthrough solution to speak for itself and succeed on its own merits. They fall prey to the “If you build it, they will come” fallacy. Like the inventors of the Sony Reader and the Segway Personal Transporter, they convince themselves that the demonstrable superiority of their product will prove irresistible to potential users, partners, and other stakeholders.

Second, they underestimate the potential hostility of the environment. The Segway team failed to anticipate regulatory pressures in many states and countries. The Segway’s revolutionary design didn’t fit existing vehicle categories, so it was often banned from sidewalks or roads. Production of the Segway ended in 2020. Similarly, Google Glass, which allowed wearers to surreptitiously film anything in their view, ran afoul of bans in establishments such as casinos and bars. In January 2015, barely nine months after it went on sale to the general public, Google pulled the plug on the product.

Revolutionary products and ideas can easily be stymied by external forces. But for innovators, what often comes as the biggest shock is internal opposition from the very organization that stands to benefit most from the breakthrough. Great solutions get quashed all the time, often because they don’t fit the prevailing business lines or business model. Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Company (PARC) is a veritable shrine to missed opportunities. It has a spectacular history of breakthrough inventions that were later seized by others, including the first true PC (the Xerox Alto), the computer mouse, and the laser printer.

As a result of these two delusions — overestimating the value of the solution and underestimating the need for buy-in — innovators often misjudge the effort required to mobilize supporters and overcome obstacles. They also fail to appreciate the need for originality in bridging that gap.

Successful innovators will need to identify the forces, internal and external, that could potentially help or harm them. To navigate this mission, it’s important to split it up into its two components: the need to survive and the need to thrive.

How to survive

To navigate safely, start by reconnoitering the terrain, especially potential hazards, and then develop strategies to avoid or overcome the hazards.

Mapping frictions. Resistance can flare up whenever a proposed solution violates industry norms. Take the case of James Dyson. His ingenious bagless vacuum cleaner was turned down by all the major home-appliance manufacturers. Looking back, Dyson acknowledged his naivete: “I had visions of a vacuum revolution. Reality was something different. These vacuum makers had built a razor-and-blade business model reliant on the profits from bags and filters. No one would license my idea, not because it was a bad one, but because it was bad for business.” It took Dyson several years to overcome these rebuttals, to fight legal battles on both sides of the Atlantic to protect his patents, and finally to raise the funds to start his own manufacturing facility.

Revolutionary products and ideas can easily be stymied by external forces. But for innovators, what often comes as the biggest shock is internal opposition.

Before presenting your solution, ask yourself, How will my solution clash with current arrangements — with the established order of this social system, organization, sector, or profession? Where are the points of friction? Always consider how your solution might upset established thinking, relationships, or practices — within the organization or within the ecosystem — in political, regulatory, economic, structural, social, psychological, technological, or functional terms.

When engaging with others, you need to be mindful that the same characteristics that make your solution distinctive — like being bagless — also make it divisive. To lessen the frictions, you must find ways to frame the solution in a way that does not trigger allergic reactions. In the words of a former Lego innovation director, you need to be a “diplomatic rebel.” If you want to be disruptive, you have to build bridges. You need to think of ways to adapt your message and your actions so you can maneuver past the potential roadblocks.

Neutralizing threats. Being aware of likely friction points will help you circumvent them. However, you may also have to take evasive action. In some cases, you may be required to steer to avoid being seen or hit, and in others, to maneuver to absorb hits with the least amount of damage.

One way to avoid taking hits is to keep the enemy from firing at you in the first place. To do this, use camouflage to evade detection and the destructive judgment of others. Make yourself small and blend in with your surroundings. This is a particularly useful tactic at the start of an innovation journey, before you have something to show.

Of course, you can’t remain obscured forever. Once you’re visible, you can minimize the disruptive potential of your project by stressing its links with the past. You can demonstrate that, although the solution is different, it’s not radical. This approach makes it harder to brand you as a rebel. Annalisa Gigante, the former head of innovation at LafargeHolcim, the world’s largest cement company, cites this as her biggest lesson (from painful experience) in pushing innovative projects: “The closer you can propose an idea that really matches with the goals of the company, the easier it is.... So it’s really understanding what the core of the company is. If it’s sustainability and if it’s an idea that increases sustainability, then you will already have that momentum with you.”

The same principle — linking your radical project with familiar and accepted concepts — applies externally, too. For example, former Economist writer Jonathan Ledgard founded a drone-based air cargo company and was careful with his message when he proposed using drones to address Africa’s emergency-supply challenges. Anticipating a risk of rejection because so many people associated drones with missile attacks, Ledgard called his drones “flying donkeys.” This unexpected euphemism, borrowed from a Kenyan farmer, captured the idea perfectly, making it concrete, unthreatening, and memorable.

Resisting attack. You can’t anticipate and avoid every threat, so you must also adapt. You may need to be agile and sometimes switch tactics. These defenses may not keep you from being shot, but they may prevent you from being shot down. Unorthodox defensive moves are another option. These can be used not only to deflect hits, but to actually turn them to your advantage.

Take the case of TerraCycle, a for-profit recycling business. Canadian student Tom Szaky dropped out of Princeton in 2002 to produce and distribute an organic fertilizer branded as Worm Poop, which later gave rise to the business TerraCycle. He collected food waste from the university and fed it to worms, which turned it into rich fertilizer that could be liquefied and packaged in used soda bottles.

TerraCycle’s big break came when it won first prize at the Carrot Capital Business Plan Challenge, which came with a US$1 million investment in the business. The only catch: The investors wanted to orient the business toward a wider line of organic fertilizers and tone down its distinctive environmental message. With only $500 in the bank, TerraCycle desperately needed the investment. But Szaky turned it down. Instead, he leveraged the interest shown by Carrot Capital to attract alternative funding and gain attention from the biggest retailers.

Of course, once TerraCycle started to compete for shelf space, the competition took notice. Scotts Miracle-Gro, the behemoth of plant food, filed a lawsuit claiming that TerraCycle’s packaging resembled Miracle-Gro’s too closely and was confusing consumers. Though far-fetched, given that TerraCycle’s packaging was used soda bottles, not sleek containers, Scotts’s claim had to be answered.

TerraCycle risked running out of money. Even if the lawsuit didn’t bankrupt the company, having to respond to the lawsuit risked distracting it from the work of meeting shipping dates, which could undermine the credibility it had started to establish with the large retail chains.

So TerraCycle decided to use Scotts’s dominance to its advantage. “We started a website that was intended to get our side of the story out,” said Szaky. Beyond stating the details of the complaint — and cheekily asking people if they could tell the difference between the two products — the narrative painted a David versus Goliath struggle that was tailor-made for the news media.

The net result? “Ninety days later...Miracle-Gro ended up settling on very favorable terms.” The internet-based defense did not just shame Scotts into withdrawing its lawsuit; it also brought TerraCycle an unprecedented level of publicity. It came out of the lawsuit strengthened.

How to thrive

When pushing your disruptive solution into the world, your first priority must be survival. But in order to thrive, you must find ways to keep developing and improving. If you stay in survival mode, you risk losing time and making too many compromises. Your efforts to blend in might make you bland. To thrive, you need to identify positive forces that can help your breakthrough idea gain traction, and you need to find original ways of harnessing those forces to ensure that everyone benefits.

Mapping overlooked opportunities. Threats are not the only thing innovators sometimes overlook; they often miss opportunities to configure an original business model and achieve scale with unconventional partners. For example, Bertrand Piccard, founder of the Solar Impulse experimental aircraft project, discovered that the aviation industry had zero interest in supporting his efforts to build a solar plane. They told him it was impossible to produce enough energy to keep the plane aloft at night. So he turned to yacht builders instead. “If people believe something is impossible, you have to find people who don’t know it’s impossible,” said Piccard. “And that was a shipyard that told us, ‘We can make your plane as light as you want because we know how to use carbon fiber.’ ”

The new partner enabled a paradigm shift from the challenge of producing more energy to that of consuming less energy. Ultimately, this led Piccard and his team to design “a plane with the wingspan of a jumbo jet but the weight of a family car.” Novel collaborations are often critical to delivering breakthrough solutions.

Another great example is Vestergaard Frandsen (VF), the Switzerland-based disease-control company. They devised an ingenious line of water filters that sold well to hikers and campers but were far too costly for the rural African and Indian communities that needed them most. Because the filters reduce air pollution by eliminating the need to purify water over open fires, VF hatched the idea of distributing the devices for free and using funding from carbon offsets to generate revenues.

To unlock this novel source of funding, the company had to satisfy independent auditors that hundreds of thousands of filters were actually being used. So, VF looked to an open-source data collection platform developed at the University of Washington and worked with the platform’s developers to create a smartphone app that would allow field representatives to photograph recipients of the filters and record their homes’ GPS coordinates. Now, each recipient was reachable for follow-up and auditing purposes, making the solution scalable and sustainable.

Bringing partners closer. Identifying promising partners is one thing; convincing them to be energetic contributors is another. As an initiator of breakthrough solutions, you need to find creative ways of aligning the interests of partners, as well as responding to unexpected opportunities that may emerge from the ecosystem.

Don’t try to outmaneuver potential partners; inspire them to collaborate. Among the coalition of partners that Piccard drew to the Solar Impulse project, he was able to leverage a shared interest in what would be learned during the process, regardless of the outcome. “Several companies told me, ‘We don’t know if it’s possible, but we want to try with you, because it will stimulate innovation internally...and motivate our teams to be more innovative and to get into this process of disruption.’” Piccard took a similar approach with the sponsors of his project: “When you stop convincing and you start motivating,” he said, “you make the alliance with the part of the [funder] that would like to say yes.”

The challenge is finding creative ways to bridge goals in order to achieve traction. A good example is the Mexico-born theme park chain KidZania, an indoor “city” where children can role-play adult jobs. When its founders ran out of funding to launch the concept, they decided to approach corporate sponsors, including DHL, Nestlé, and HSBC. Rather than just asking for financial support, they also incorporated their sponsors’ specific industry knowledge to help design the activities and infrastructure for a more realistic experience. The concept was an instant hit. Within two years, the park was attracting twice the number of visitors initially forecast. And it has since become the world’s fastest-growing group in experiential learning for children. It now has 24 parks in 19 countries across five continents, with another 12 under construction.

KidZania cofounder and CEO Xavier López Ancona, a former GE Capital VP, said, “The business model is based on a win-win scheme: for our customers who are children; for their parents, whom we help by reinforcing values; similarly for schools; for the malls, for whom we are a differentiator; for the brands that are shared, it is a way to approach customers; for the work team; and, of course, it is a good deal for investors. Everybody wins.” KidZania managed to turn its sponsors into partners and co-creators.

Taking unconventional routes. In addition to connecting with unconventional partners, you need to exploit unexpected opportunities. Navigation, in contrast with implementation, sometimes requires improvisation and daring, not just execution. You may even have to relinquish full control for the solution to flourish.

After KidZania’s success with two parks in Mexico, the company’s cofounders became interested in international expansion. However, they disagreed on whether to start in the neighboring United States. As a consequence of this difference, they split up. Luis Javier Laresgoiti sold his share to López and moved to Florida to launch Wannado City, a theme park similar to KidZania but three times the size. López took more seriously the advice of several experts, among them Howard Schultz of Starbucks, who recommended that he delay entering the U.S. market. “First, grow with your brand in Mexico, then try it in another market...and in another,” warned Schultz. “Doing it in the U.S. too fast can break you.” As López developed a franchise plan to expand abroad, a Japanese entrepreneur took an interest in the project. Within three months, the company signed a contract to build the first franchise in Tokyo.

It was an unconventional move for a Mexican company. Those not expanding into the U.S. typically head south into Central America, or overseas into Spain. KidZania was only the second Mexican group to invest in Japan (after cement giant Cemex). But López realized that Japan offered access to a huge market, and the country was also seen as a trendsetter by other Asian nations: “We have to go where the cities are, and 60 percent of the population is in Asia.” It proved to be a shrewd move. First-year attendance at the Tokyo franchise was more than twice that at the Mexican parks.

While continuing to manage the two (and later three) parks in the Mexican market, López created a separate unit to manage the franchises and pursued rapid growth across major Asian cities. Working with local operators as well as international partners, KidZania was clearly a business concept that could span borders and cultures.

Today, the company is expanding into the U.S. market. The Wannado City venture, established in the U.S. by López’s former partner, closed in 2011 because of financial problems and lack of business. By contrast, López has carved out a new niche in the entertainment industry — the so-called edutainment sector.

The KidZania case offers two key lessons: Be prepared to improvise, and be prepared to let go to grow.

Start planning your journey

Remember that navigating innovation starts with surveying the landscape. Ask yourself what forces could make or break your solution and how your idea might encroach on other people’s turf internally and externally. Be sure you understand all the frictions it could create, link it to your organization’s past heritage, and show how it supports a mission that is highly relevant to your key stakeholders.

Then, once you’re on your way, be ready to react nimbly to obstacles in your path. The road might not be straight. In fact, you might need to have alternate routes mapped. But if you are well prepared and can adapt, you can make it to your destination.

Author profiles:

  • Cyril Bouquet is a professor of innovation and strategy at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland. He created the program TransformTech, in collaboration with the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, for senior leaders to explore how new technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and the internet of things are transforming the world of business.
  • Michael Wade is a professor of innovation and strategy at IMD. He also holds the Cisco Chair in Digital Business Transformation and has published nine books.
  • Jean-Louis Barsoux is a research professor at IMD and the coauthor of several books on management, including the award-winning Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome.
  • From the book Alien Thinking: The Unconventional Path to Breakthrough Ideas, by Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux, and Michael Wade. Copyright © 2021 by Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux, and Michael Wade. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
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