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The Recipe for Innovation Success

Success in innovation isn’t going to happen overnight, nor does it happen as a matter of chance. There’s nothing preordained about successful innovation. There are a number of factors that can contribute to the ultimate success or failure of your latest idea, but the basic formula that I’ve learned

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
4 min read
successful innovation

Success in innovation isn't going to happen overnight, nor does it happen as a matter of chance. There’s nothing preordained about successful innovation. There are a number of factors that can contribute to the ultimate success or failure of your latest idea, but the basic formula that I've learned over the years is: success = idea + hard work + timing + luck.

Success = Idea + Hard Work + Timing + Luck

Phil McKinney

The Idea

Having a killer idea – a viable one that addresses a unique need in a creative and useful way – is obviously one of the critical components of success. You need an idea for a different way of doing things: a unique product that will solve a problem, a different way of looking at an old story. Without the idea, the other parts of the equation won't take you very far.

This is where you need to dig in deep and do the work of really making sure your idea is worthwhile and you have the tools you need to make it happen. It's important to take the time to flesh out the details: to work out potential road blocks and how to get around them, examine other possibilities, and consider your idea from different angles. A spark of an idea is a wonderful thing, but not enough to rely on. A fully-developed idea will give you the best chance of success.

Success From Hard Work

The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary. ~ Vince Lombardi

This is where many people fall short: the second piece of the success equation. An idea is wonderful, but it doesn't do anyone any good if it stays in your head and you never take the steps necessary to do anything with it. Once you've developed your idea, you have to put in the time and effort to make something out of it. You have to get past the brainstorming part of the creative process and move on to the actual creation – and more importantly, you have to execute and turn it in to a real thing.

In the early stages of a new project, it's easy to let creative energy and excitement drive you. As that project becomes more familiar and excitement wanes, it's harder to keep up the motivation. That's when it's critical to dig in and keep going, working even when you want more than anything to throw up your hands and quit. There will be roadblocks. There will be moments when you don't think you're ever going to see the end. If you truly want to be successful, however, those are the moments when you have to work harder than ever before.

Great innovation doesn’t come about just because one person had a great idea. The public sees the end result: a shiny new iPhone model; a fun new photo-sharing app. What they don’t see are the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it, the countless hours of development and design and testing, the failures that came before the finished product came into being. It’s easy to lose sight of that hard work from the outside, but you have to embrace it as part of being an innovator.

Equally critical is the work that comes after the creative part of the process. You'll have to market your work and make connections. You'll have to explain your innovation to people who don't understand it. For many creative individuals, this is the hardest part of the process. But it’s part of the work you have to put in to turn your idea into reality.

There’s just no shortcut around hard work.


There is one thing mightier than kings and armies – the power of an idea when its time has come to move. ~ Unknown

Even with all the hard work in the world, no idea can take flight at the wrong time. Just look at Google Glass: an incredibly innovative product that largely flopped in the marketplace because it was seen as something of a joke. The wearable tech market is still relatively new, and it was just too early for consumers to embrace something so obtrusive – smart watches and activity trackers are all the rage now, but Google tried to step into that market with something that was just too big. In ten years, however, the market could (and probably will) be completely different, and the Glass might have more success. It's all a matter of timing.

Taking the temperature of markets and culture takes practice and critical thought. Filling a need in the market is a great way to see success. Attempting to market something that few people want right now, on the other hand, will likely not work out.


I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it  ~ Thomas Jefferson

There will always be factors you can’t control in the innovation process, and when one turns out to be beneficial, some might call that luck. But while true dumb luck does strike sometimes, that’s not really the kind of luck we’re talking about. Being an innovator really means creating your own luck by putting in the work it takes to turn your idea into reality. It also means being ready to take advantage of opportunities and advantages when they arise. It means always being on the lookout for and receptive to new ideas, and seeking out connections with diverse groups of people.

Success, once you have it, can become an echo chamber. It can start to feel inevitable, even though you know how much hard work went into achieving it. That’s why continuous innovation means never fully believing your own PR – never taking anything for granted, and always putting in the work that gives you the best chance for success. There may be factors beyond your control, but your chance for success without hard work is zero.

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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