Innovation Reality – A Smuggler’s Tale (Part 1)

Guest post from an anonymous Rainforest builder

Innovation ecosystems involve many hopeful and inspired people along the journey of bringing an idea to life. There are serial entrepreneurs, incubators, startups, seed investments, venture capital, accelerators, labs, governments, and support services galore to help companies with the latest whiz-bang idea. Like bait on a hook, magazines like Entrepreneur and Fast Company bombard aspiring business people with the happy and ambitious phrases defining what you should do or be to create the next best disruptive invention:

Your brilliant ideas impact the world!

Surround yourself with a community of greatness, inspiration and like-minded rebels!

Ignore the naysayers! Ignore the haters!

Take bold action! Be a risk taker Push your boundaries!

Well here is a little secret. All of these inspirational slogans are annoying as hell to those on the front lines of innovation in big-company cultures. (What do you mean, ‘front lines’?)

Making innovation happen isn’t a happy experience. It is a grinding, protracted battle. What most companies would call a victory, like a big sale inked, or an introduction of a new product on the shelves, well, that is not when innovators celebrate. Our small victories, when they come, are celebrated on the down low, inside the hidden innovation network.

We celebrate when minds are converted, which happens at a snail’s pace. It only happens one mind at a time. That is when we kick back, smoke a proverbial cigar with our small squad of disruptors, and wait for the next battle to begin.

You will never fully experience the bright side of innovation without understanding that it comes with a powerfully dark side, and at great cost to those who fought the fight. Often it falls to those who have lived on the entrepreneurial side but are now, as my colleague says “in the belly of the beast”.

Innovation is a Dirty Word
Innovation: That undefined, grossly overused, sometimes magical (meaning “brilliant”) word. That “generates excitement” word. That “We must have it because everyone else does” word. That word that is used by people who really don’t know what it means, or what it takes, but are convinced that that they need it.

Merriam-Webster defines innovation as a new idea, device, or method, but it has taken on multiple meanings in the business ecosystem. The word could mean invention, or investing in startups. It could mean new product development, or testing assumptions about what buyers want, or a substitute for “creative.” Too often, in corporate life, it is also a curse.

Lots of people want to innovate, whether they are entrepreneurs or trailblazers within an organization. Some of us actually break out of corporate life and do just that. We start our own businesses, we thrive, we fail, we exit, we get great PR, we hobble, and sometimes some of us end up back in the corporate machine. But in our minds, we still are visionary thinkers driven to change the world. Not in some distant future. But now. We are just as impatient as when we were entrepreneurs.

What we encounter is a lot of people who want to “WOW” their colleagues and gush about innovation and their role in it, but the fact is, no one really wants to get in there to see how it’s done. They only want to see the successes, without taking the risks or looking at all of the failures. Ninety percent of the time innovation leads to failure or learnings of what worked and what didn’t. These outcomes make corporate executives very uncomfortable.

There is never only light in innovation. If we want true collaboration to fuel innovation ecosystems, one must explore where and how disruption occurs.

The corporate machine likes conformity, trade secrets, efficiency, and matching results to forecasts. On the other hand, the innovation machine is fueled by non-conformity, breaking the rules, transparency and collaboration, and recognizing that unexpected results are sometimes the most valuable outcomes. No surprises here folks. Two conflicting cultures are at odds from the get-go.

Innovation ecosystems are more than startups, funding, accelerators, and whatnot. Corporate entities are often the purchasers of innovative products or services, and are also the eventual exit strategy for the entrepreneurs in the ecosystem. And corporations are where the dark side of innovation exists.

Warriors on the Dark Side of Innovation: Meet the Smugglers
The dark side of innovation is where difficult and dangerous work resides. And it requires a special type of individual who can persuade people to open their minds. I call these people Smugglers.

Smugglers are fearless. They choose not to relax with groups or communities that seek safety of business-as-usual. Smugglers want to kill business as usual. We are dividers. Breakers. We unhinge old beliefs.

Smuggling is neither done through PowerPoint, nor email. Unlike computer networks, which are physically open to a larger wired world, our nervous system is built from private computers, physically isolated from one another. Smugglers ignite one mind at a time. We minimize fear one mind at a time. Every chance we get. A Smuggler’s mission is to ignite movements without being politically ‘outed’ and neutralized…or killed.

Smugglers cause disruption. We open the eyes and stimulate the minds of people who didn’t know they were blind and stagnant.


· Create an underground resistance to the “same old same old” because we believe we need to change to be competitive

· Minimize the fear of the new

· Seed thoughts of hope, in different places, so that when others get together they share in the same vision

· Make new ideas popular, with a smile and encouragement that it’s cool to back the idea

· Suffer, and oh how we suffer, the obstinacy of those who aren’t capable of connecting the dots

· Tell the right part of the story to the right person at the right time

· Give unconditionally in an un-giving culture

· Collaborate with those who will collaborate, and team together to advance solutions

· Are willing to be vulnerable and admit when we don’t know the answers

· Are lonely in our view of the world

· Are convinced that what we bring to the table will make a significant impact on the business and for the good of the world.

Smuggling Operations
Smuggling is a team sport. Invisible networks, like invisible rivers, allow the movement of fresh knowledge and political influence to help other Smugglers.

Smugglers are always seeking these invisible rivers, also called the “invisible sanity network”: the team of like-minded people who believe there is a better way.

The first thing a Smuggler needs to transport is the awareness of pain. Enabling the collective hive to notice and experience the pain is very challenging and requires a multi-front strategy. Sometimes it is necessary to illuminate (or even stimulate) some pain – with the help of these hidden networks – in order to make people aware that it exists and causes risk to the company.

Smugglers understand value very quickly. When you meet a fellow Smuggler on the inside of a corporation, you will see quickly that they too have been analyzing better ways of doing things and are usually grateful that they aren’t alone in thinking in such radical ways.

Smugglers exist at all levels of an organization. However, they usually are isolated, and don’t realize there are other Smugglers just like them in the company. It is a Smuggler’s responsibility to seek out these networks, and help other Smugglers when they can. Smugglers are the catalysts of change. We make shit happen.

To an outside vendor who is trying to work with a large corporation, Smugglers are allies who see not only how a product or service can help in the big picture of the company, but also a path to adoption through internal political forces. Smugglers help navigate currents that vendors cannot see, flowing beneath superficially calm waters.

Entrepreneurs, you are the big picture creators of hope and vision in the innovation ecosystem! Smugglers know that you work around the clock to give us exactly what we need and are dying for. Trust your Smugglers, as we are fighting on the front lines to bring your vision into the organization. Betray a Smuggler at your own risk. This is mind-to-mind combat. This is the dark side of innovation, where many battles are fought that you know nothing about. (We work hard to protect you from that knowledge. Fear is the enemy of innovation.)

To be continued…

2 Comments on “Innovation Reality – A Smuggler’s Tale (Part 1)”

  1. These excellent comments are very thought provoking. I find my self nodding and smiling as I relate my experiences to your insights. Having just sold an agricultural business successfully in Tasmania I’m keenly aware of the need to expand our thinking on these issues

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s