Being able to constantly innovate means seeing opportunity and seizing it, but also knowing when to let something go. William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” In business, I find it’s the same feeling to build something up, push it out into the world, and occasionally let it go. The line between a genius who gets nowhere and a genius innovator is being able to say no.
Here’s how entrepreneurs can avoid becoming too attached to ideas, say no to distractions, and keep moving ahead toward greater outcomes—even if it means leaving your darlings behind sometimes.
A declining culture of innovation
There is a direct link between declining entrepreneurship and big business, where people become used to hierarchy and long-term roles with predictable, minor growth. The Atlantic reported that entrepreneurship has declined since the 1970s, with millennials being the least entrepreneurial of any generation. The article argues that while some industries, like technology, have celebrated entrepreneurs to serve as role models, upcoming generations see more and more big businesses and fewer small businesses or start-ups, and are less likely to take risks and innovate themselves.
When it comes to innovation, starting something, of any size, is the first step. You can’t decide between several ideas or programs if you haven’t had the chance and drive to start them in the first place.
The Harvard Business Review takes another stance, and segments entrepreneurs into productive and unproductive. The study found that in 2009 there were more businesses closing than opening for the first time in three decades, across all states and all industries (even high tech). What’s the difference? The unproductive entrepreneurs are creating something to obtain a special status with the government or a large company, essentially not sharing their knowledge. The productive entrepreneurs are creating something that is breaking the mold and benefiting society by making something new while also being profitable.
This gives us a good idea of what innovations will and won’t be a success, which is a great starting point for budding entrepreneurs. It’s also a good indicator for seasoned entrepreneurs on what new programs will and won’t work out.
How to get back to entrepreneurial thinking
Many of us are comfortable managing employees with an “up or out” growth mentality, but we fail to apply this to our own ideas. When I’m trying out something new or hiring someone new, there is the same adjustment and trial period to see how it will work out. Eventually, a decision has to be made, and it’s the same for both employees and ideas. Has there been growth, advancement, or indication of future success? If not, the people and/or project need to go.
What if you can’t generate new ideas, and are feeling stuck? The Wall Street Journal interviewed entrepreneurs and startup accelerator advisors and came up with several key points of advice including being aware of your immediate pain points and needs, discussing with others, and looking at the past. For me, the most important point is that the first, second, or third idea still may not be the one with real potential. You have to keep going, continuing to create and test new ideas, to get past any hurdles.
There is a timeline that is important to embrace. It’s tempting to look at something that is working and jump in 100 percent. But deciding on one project or plan too early, and locking into it completely, cuts off the ability to improve and adjust. This is the process of learning, and it should be embraced. You’ll know more after time, and can use that to decide between several of your options when the moment is right. If you go totally into one option early, you don’t have the examples from other projects to compare and contrast. However, there comes a time when projects must die. Successful entrepreneurs balance the testing period with giving the ax.
Let me be clear, I’m not advocating taking on all projects and ideas all the time. We live in a culture that values being busy, and it’s not for the best. If you ask someone, “how are you?” the common response is “good, busy.” But how often is this busy schedule actually accomplishing the goal of creating new, relevant growth or generating information, which can be used to make decisions?
According to The Atlantic, there was once a time when being rich meant being less busy. But, citing a study from Columbia Business School, it also explains that busyness has become a status symbol. The study found that in the U.S., people perceived a non-busy person as lazy while in Italy the same image was perceived as a happy rich person. In a similar article, John Hopkins Health Review said busyness was causing people to lose sleep and have trouble concentrating. Put simply, being busy can hurt your business.
This can all be solved with the word “no” and a little prioritizing. We are able to assess resources this way, but somehow unable to turn that same scrutiny on ourselves. We are finite resources, too, and when we stretch ourselves too thin we don’t pay the proper attention and effort to any one thing. By saying no respectfully, clearly, and often, we can get in the habit of keeping our goals within our target.
If I want to start a new project, but I also have another project beginning and one mid-way, I might have to make a choice. When I am testing a new business idea, technology, or process, I remind myself to remain objective, test ideas and results rationally, and know when to quit. It can be hard to sunset a project that has so much time and many resources invested, but it’s more damaging to try to keep it going at the expense of other, more proven projects. There is an infinite number of new ideas to explore, and for them to have a chance; the least viable ideas need to die.