Innovation Frustration

Innovation Frustration

Everybody Wants to Create Something ‘Big’. Realistically, Most of Us Won’t.

Dan O’Brien, MBA1 Managing Editor

You are a special flower. Probably.

As any admissions consultant worth his salt will tell you, NYU Stern is one of the best graduate business schools on the planet, possibly the entire solar system (although graduates issuing from Uranus are quite impressive these days). We’re all here for a reason. We come from teaching, banking, publishing, the military, and a hundred other roles. We’re smart, motivated people who are undoubtedly destined to occupy the global 1%, which, as Investopedia has it, means annual income above $32,400 (shoot for the stars I guess). The world is our proverbial raw oyster with lemon and/or cocktail sauce.

But let’s be real, not all MBAs are created equal… Right? I’m not talking about the value of the stamp on your diploma. What I mean is that the distribution of MBA talent at Stern – and everywhere else for that matter – can probably be conceptualized as a normal curve.        (Thanks, Professor Perry!).

What does that mean? Well, in practice, most of us “get it”. We live and die plus or minus one standard deviation from the mean. At Stern, the mean is a good place to be. We’re solid B+(ish) students, we occasionally ask stupid questions in class, and we cruise with painful effort from corporate presentation to coffee chat to thank you note (It’s getting easier, but you know what I mean).

Then we have the folks in the tails of the distribution. The left tail might be more fun, but the right tail is where the money’s at. If all MBAs are created equal, those right-tail kids are just “more equal” than the rest of us. They’re the hyper-achievers, the ones with resumes in 9-point font to fit the names of the toddlers they’ve saved from burning buildings. They’ve got smarts in spades, but that’s only part of it. As spoken by the patron saint of MBAs, Shaquille O’Neal (Yes he has an MBA. Google it.), “And now abideth brains, guts, and creativity, but the greatest of these is creativity.”

Creativity. Imagination. Ingenuity. Innovation. Genius.

Our canon of modern business titans is a short list of people who came up with or organized something definitively new. Ok… stick a pin in that for a second. Let’s talk about Godwin’s Law. Basically, it suggests that as the length of any online discussion increases, the probability of someone mentioning Hitler approaches 1. Change the setting to “menu core course” and the reference to Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for an inferiority complex with a side of self-loathing. These are our heroes, and we beat ourselves up because we aren’t there yet.

Everybody wants to do something big – something that transcends borders or changes the way we do business. The plain fact is that most of us won’t. We’ll do very well, we’ll care for our families, and we’ll give back to Stern when we can, but not everybody gets to perfect the smartphone. The gulf between expectation (or blind hope) and reality is wide and treacherous. Falls are inevitable. Such was my experience of the Amazon Innovation Competition. To be clear, I love Amazon top to bottom. They are stupidly good at finding ways to sell me things. But when Professor Okun handed out the prompt, “best new business idea” somehow snowballed into “cold fusion + peace on earth, thx”, I balked. During the kickoff meeting, he’d explained that pretty much every idea presented was something that Amazon had already thought of, but I still couldn’t make myself jump. Why? It wasn’t for lack of ideas. I had some, but not one was the best friggin’ idea since sliced whatever.

So this was a case where the exercise was probably more important than the result, but I think the lesson holds in reverse as well. Maybe, occasionally, you will jump with a shitty idea and be better for it.

I asked Tiffany Kwong, EEX VP of Communications, for a student perspective on creativity and innovation:

“Creativity can mean a lot of things. Finding new methods to solve problems or developing new strategies could all be considered creative. Most people think creativity is a rare quality that only a few people have, but I think various creative approaches can be learned by anyone.”

So there’s method in the madness. If you’re in Professor Carr’s marketing class, you’ve heard it said in some way shape or form: “The only thing that correlates with entrepreneurial success is the number of businesses started.” Or, if you prefer a more direct approach, “Just go do it… Cause if you’re not there starting [your business], you’re not learning how to actually do this thing.”

This paragraph is where I should put the conclusion I reached. The thing is, I’m not sure I’m there yet. Many people who are much smarter than me say that creativity and innovation can be systematized, derived, made procedural. Other people who are also much smarter than me say that if you have an idea, even if it’s sorta good but also sorta not, just go for it. Maybe I’m so dense that I haven’t realized these people are saying the same thing.

The fact is every jump comes with a calculation. Will I superman into the end zone or will I crash and burn? TBD, SUCKA. For now, while you’re in B-School in the fat part of the normal curve, do some (metaphorical) squats, work on the (proverbial) glutes, and jump before you’re ready. I’m in the kitchen working on my flux capacitor. See you in 1985.

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