Now is the time to innovate

It’s pretty scary reading the papers and listening to the news these days. We are all left wondering how this current downturn will play itself out. Unfortunately I don’t have a crystal ball and make no claim to any ability to predict the future. I don’t know what is going to happen any more than any commentator on current affairs.

That said, I’d like to propose two ways of looking a the current global situation:-

  • learning from the past
  • learning from the future


Learning from the past.

You may already know this, but I’ll ask anyway. What do the following companies have in common:

  • Motorola
  • Hewlett Packard
  • Xerox
  • Unisys
  • Texas Instruments
  • Revlon
  • Ryder?

I deliberately organised the list this way so that you might be misled by the first five entries that they were all technology companies. But you would have know that Revlon was in the cosmetics business and probably (although I had to refresh my memory) that Ryder was a transportation and logistics group.

If you haven’t worked it out yet, I’ll tell you. All these companies were founded during the Great Depression. My source for the short quiz above was this article by David Silverman (although Silverman in turn tells us we could all do this research independently by checking Funding Universe .)

David also points out that a number of well known brands and products of today were established during the Depression. So while many businesses were going to the wall, it was as hard as it ever had been to raise capital and consumer confidence was at an all time low, some individuals were bold enough to launch new enterprises that have passed the test of time and some companies launched new products that have turned out to be stayers.

Now I have to put a disclaimer in here. This is, by necessity, a first look analysis. I generally criticise research which looks at successful anythings to try to find what the successes had in common. This applies to companies, leaders innovators, entrepreneurs and anything else you might like to name. We don’t know from this brief analysis how many companies started during the Depression went bust and how the success rate of startups during that period compares with that of startups during more bouyant times. So I am not suggesting this proves a downturn is a better time to innovate than during a boom. I am suggesting though that some people who have tried have found success in doing so.

And this first level analysis makes some sort of intuitive sense. Even if we think of it in terms of ‘survival of the fittest.’ Anyone can make money during a boom but in tough times, only the fittest (or perhaps in a business sense, the smartest) survive. A recession shakes us all around and sorts us out. During a recession we have to find new and smarter ways of doing things. We have to use our advertising dollars smarter. We have to work out which parts of our business never really made sense anyway but coasted along in the boom and which parts of our business could be the source of sustainable growth into the future.

All sorts of questions come to mind regarding our employees. Which ones stuck by us in the boom when they could have made more money elsewhere? Who shows real promise with creative thinking and can come up with some of the new ideas we need to survive and prosper? Who have just been hanging on and coasting.

Finally, as other businesses fall over around us what are the new opportunities? We can be fairly sure we are not going to grow by copying outdated business models or just copying products that our erstwhile competitors can no longer provide. But what new products and services do these holes in the market call out for?

“Oh for a crystal ball,” you may well exclaim. This is where we move on to my second way of learning:

Learning form the future.

At first glance, this concept might seem a nonsense. How can you
learn from something that hasn’t already happened? Might I be so bold
as to suggest that all innovation is ‘learning from the future’ and
that most of us do it all the time.

Briefly, to understand this a little more, think about the anatomy
of an innovation. In an innovation, someone (or a team of people)
creates something that wasn’t there before. There is a real sense in
which they ‘see into the future’. They actually see a future in which
their innovation has been accepted and become part of everyday life.
This is just imagination you might say. I think it is more than that. I
think people who create in this way are connected with an ’emerging
future.’ They see patterns in the present and sense, rather than know,
what is going to happen next. Often times innovators and entrepreneurs
can’t explain why they did something, they just say “it was something I
just couldn’t not do.” In other words there was something inside of
them that could not be contained. Some driving force.

This is
what I mean by learning from the future. To learn from the future you
have to know yourself and what drives you. You have to be aware of your
unexplained and inexplicable urges to do things. These urges don’t come
from analysing the market – although such analysis might trigger them. They don’t come form analysing your, or your organisation’s strengths and weaknesses – although such analysis may lead you to be aware of them. They don’t come from Porter’s Five Forces Analysis – even though studying the application of Porter’s model to your environment may be their precursor.

Rather they come from deep within you at a level of consciousness
that you are rarely aware of and they are expressed in a form for which
no formal language is adequate. You can put words around them but you
cannot contain them with words.

This is necessarily a brief article (and I am currently in the
process of writing more about this concept of learning from the future)
so I am limited in the extent of exploration possible here. However, my
life’s work is now devoted to exploring the depth of knowledge about
the future that we all have and I believe is the source of all real
innovation. It is also the source of our capacity (to the extent that
it exists) to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.

This is a theme I will return to here in the Spiral Path, but in the
meantime, you might like to follow up with some additional reading:

Presencing: Leading from the future as it emerges  a paper by C. Otto Scharmer.

(As you may have guessed from the title, Otto Scharmer has been
instrumental in leading my thought process along the lines described


Coming back to the beginning then, to survive in tough times, you
need to be smarter than you have ever been before. Your organisation
needs to innovate and create new products and services. Maybe you need
even to create a new enterprise adequate to the conditions of the 21st
Century. Whatever scenario though, I suggest that you don’t need to
think harder with your conscious, analytical mind but you need to
connect strongly with your inner self.

I don’t intend these articles to be self promoting (other than
perhaps for you to think something of me as a writer and thinker) but
the content of this article is also pretty much at the centre of my
work as a mentor. When I speak of connecting strongly with your inner
self, I am using a parallel concept to what I call your “enduring
purpose.” You can find out more about this work at

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