From Einstein’s theory of relativity, to Elon Musk’s revolutionary plays with Tesla and SpaceX, to Muhammad Yunus’ transformation of the economic fortunes of the world’s poorest with a radical new financing model, three phrases capture the common thread that runs across all transformative innovations. They are simple. They are irreverent. They are novel.
Here’s how SIN occurs.
Simple. At the core of every transformative idea, or business is a guiding concept or principle that is pristine in its simplicity. Newton found formulas for everything from planetary motion, to optics and cooling, because he fundamentally believed that there was order in all of nature which meant there were rules, that could be found and expressed in mathematical formulae, if one looked hard enough. And everywhere he looked, he found rule after rule. The folks at Airbnb believed they could turn the homes of everyday people into rentable accommodation. Jeff Bezos imagined an online store, with mostly virtual warehouses that allowed consumers to buy from whoever they wanted, whenever they wanted, without the constrictions of shelf space, opening hours and location. While the activities that make the concept come to life might be complicated, the core, animating idea itself is fundamentally simple.
Irreverent. Irreverence – is the refusal to worship at the altar of the traditional and the conventional. Some call it “thinking outside the box” or “shifting paradigms.” Irreverence is not a single solitary act. It is a mindset. When Einstein upended centuries old theories in science, he was a clerk in a patent office who had been unable to secure an academic position. Newton was pushing so hard on the edges of science that he dared to invent a new mathematical form – calculus – to adequately capture his ideas. Musk’s SpaceX dared to imagine that a private venture could do for space travel what entire governments with unlimited budgets had failed to attain in over 50 years of effort – develop reusable rockets that will radically lower the cost of space travel.
Imagine the irreverence in thinking one could create a “hotel chain” using other people’s homes (Airbnb), in a world with storied hotel chains like Hilton and Sheraton? And whoever came up with the audacious idea of packing a musical library in a compact mobile platform (Napster, Apple), or conceived of microfinance – banking the poorest and most “unbankable” persons by giving loans to groups of “unbankable” persons and expecting them to “morally pressure” one another into repaying? Irreverence turns on three words: “why”, and “why not”? The “why question allows innovators to get to the heart of how things work. In science, no progress is made without asking “why?”. Apples had been falling for millions of years before one fell before Newton, and it prompted the “why” that led to the discovery of the laws of gravity.
The “why not” question is at the heart of innovations in business. The poor were too risky to provide loans to, until Yunus came along and asked “why not”? Without daring to question orthodoxy and gaining the courage to ask “why” or “why not”; without daring to be irreverent, innovation is impossible. Why? Because building extensions on existing structures and tinkering around the edges of the known mainly constrains progress to incremental improvements.
Novel. Novel is an oft abused word. The dictionary definition of the adjective novel – is something new or unusual. Truly transformative innovations always create something new or unusual. Yunus’ ideas about banking the unbankable led to a new financing model called microfinance. Facebook, Google and other social media and search platforms created new business models that allowed them to provide “free” platforms to users, while leveraging their access to information about these users to create revenue streams in targeted advertising. Innovation does not seek novelty for novelty’s sake. Novelty comes naturally with irreverence. And more often than not, the novel is also simple, yet elegant: like Newton’s calculus; like Einstein’s relativity; like Airbnb’s business model; like Yunus’ microfinance.
Thinking of changing the world? Then get ready with ideas that are full of S.I.N!
Dr. Malcolm Fabiyi is COO & VP of Operations for Drylet, LLC. He holds a BSc First Class degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Lagos, an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth of Business, and a PhD in Chemical & Environmental Engineering from Cambridge University, England.