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The Innovator's Dilemma: How Money Ruins Creativity

Jan 3 2014, 1:26pm CST | by

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The Innovator's Dilemma: How Money Ruins Creativity
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The Innovator's Dilemma: How Money Ruins Creativity

When a company is young and strapped for cash, its employees tend to ask one question, over and over: How can we do what we need to do without money?

That question supplies rocket fuel to a new organization’s innovation engine. Is it a coincidence that no one has accused Apple of being innovative lately, at a moment when its roughly $150 billion cash stockpile outweighs that of most governments? Is it a coincidence that the innovation strategy of Silicon Valley giants such as Google and Yahoo increasingly involves buying good ideas  rather than generating them?

This is a paradox of money : You need some to get to where you want to go–but too much may take you someplace you don’t want to go (or it may make you sit still when you should be moving).

If you can’t stretch a dollar, you can’t stretch your imagination

A decade ago, I moved into the wild and woolly Old West of mortgage lending, at the height of the housing and refinance boom. It was a chance to look, open-jawed, at the behavior of young and old professionals who all had more money than they knew how to spend.

One well-heeled colleague, coming from a humble background, seemed to understand the conundrum of her new situation. “I kind of miss the days when I had less money,” she told me one day. “It forced me to be really creative–to figure out how to make ten dollars stretch over a whole day, how to stay out of debt, and so on. Now, I just spend whatever I can spend, and there’s still money left.”

That may seem to be a dream scenario for most of us, but it’s poison for a person’s entrepreneurial spirit. [See David Spinks’ excellent Forbes piece here on how learning to cook cheaply can be a huge boost to your entrepreneurial capacities.]

Don’t try to buy success too quickly

The risk in being too rich (or at least too dependent on your riches) is that it tempts you to go from Point A to Point B in as straight a line as possible, when a meandering route may expose you to better insights or opportunities.

One executive I worked with often demanded that his staff deliver a project “right now.” Some of his deputies would inform him that his timetable was impossible, given the constraints of costs and schedules and other factors.

The executive would huff, “Bah, that’s nothing that money can’t fix. Just pay a premium, and let’s get it done fast.”

That worked on occasion. But besides wasting money, it robbed the executive’s organization from the chance to find new approaches if they were to pinch their pennies more tightly.

If a mountain separates Point A to Point B, you can pay extra to dig a tunnel through it. But if you go around the curves of the mountain, you may be able to both save money and find whole new pathways.

And isn’t that what entrepreneurialism is all about? While our society deeply values the entrepreneurial spirit, we too often forget that it’s fueled by shoestring budgets and the creative imaginations that kick into gear in order to overcome budget limitations.

A related issue comes to mind. If you hear a manager or employee say, “We can’t achieve that goal unless we get more money,” that’s an admission of a failure of imagination. You don’t just purchase innovation out of a vending machine for a set price. To good employees, innovation makes itself available regardless of cost.  A lack of money is an opportunity to problem-solve creatively, not an excuse for giving up.

Here, many managers could use a little wisdom from one of my idols, George Costanza. Explaining why he always seeks out free street parking rather than the convenience of a garage, he said , “It’s like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”

The money trap is escaped easily enough, though, and you don’t even have to throw away your money to escape it. All it takes is a return to the discipline of asking, “How much closer can we get to our goal without money?”

Source: Forbes


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