Monday, May 18, 2020

The New Innovation: Move Fast and Heal Stuff

A blur of color and cartoons
We have a box of Kashi cereal in our kitchen pantry.  That may not be a big deal in your house, but before last month, I did not know that there was such a thing as “Kashi cereal.”

Until then, when I walked down the cereal aisle in our local market, I saw just three brands: Raisin Bran, Grape-Nuts, and Life.  That’s all. Everything else was a blur of color and cartoons.

It's what marketers call my “evoked set,” and you’ve got one, too.  In fact, we’ve all got lots of them.  For cereal, beer, toothpaste, and hundreds of other items.

The evoked set, usually two or three (but rarely more than five) brands, is your brain’s way of reducing the clutter of life and staying sane.  Evoked sets tend to be stable—even unshakable.

Until now.

Shaken, Not Stirred: The COVID-19 Pandemic

It was innocent enough.  Mask on and cart disinfected, I walked into my nearby grocery store looking for Grape-Nuts.  I strolled the aisle twice and realized, for the first time ever, there were no Grape-NutsProbably, I was told, late delivery from a sick and shorthanded warehouse team.

My evoked set was shaken.  Shattered.  Dare I say: Disrupted.

And so, for the first time since our Cap'n Crunch years, I had to pay attention to the other 75 brands of cereal in the aisle.  I tried to pick one that was close to Grape-Nuts. That’s when I met Kashi.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all have had our evoked sets disrupted--along with our entire worlds.  Family connections. Friendships.  Hobbies, homes, and work rituals.  Safety nets for health and well-being. Our worlds have been disrupted.

So, too, has innovation and entrepreneurship.

Joseph Schumpeter:
creation before destruction
The New Order of Things: Creation Before Destruction

Economist Joseph Schumpeter gave us “creative destruction,” his way of explaining how entrepreneurs get things done.  The engine of progress in Schumpeter’s world was an innovation that reenergized capitalism by offering a better choice, one that improved the standard of living and enhanced the quality of life.

For Schumpeter, innovation was about creation.  Destruction was the result, the cart following the horse.

Then some stuff happened.  In the 1970s and 1980s, big companies seemed to stall. Traditional career paths in manufacturing and middle management eroded.  A few small teams of engineers formed "start-ups" that looked like fun.

In 1995, a company called Netscape, its product an eight-month-old money-loser, went public at a $3 billion valuation.  The new gold rush was on.  Two years later, Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma arrived, teaching even the CEOs of large companies doing everything right that they had one foot in the grave, always in danger of being disrupted and dismantled by small upstarts nibbling away at their worst customers.

“Ever since The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Jill Lepore wrote in her famous takedown of the theory, “everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted.”
There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: “The degree is in disruption,” the university announced. “Disrupt or be disrupted,” the venture capitalist Josh Linkner warns in a new book, “The Road to Reinvention,” in which he argues that “fickle consumer trends, friction-free markets, and political unrest,” along with “dizzying speed, exponential complexity, and mind-numbing technology advances,” mean that the time has come to panic as you’ve never panicked before. Larry Downes and Paul Nunes, who blog for Forbes, insist that we have entered a new and even scarier stage: “big bang disruption.” “This isn’t disruptive innovation,” they warn. “It’s devastating innovation”. .
For entrepreneurs who had, in Schumpeter’s world, been busy creatively launching innovations designed to promote the common good, this was a 180. The idea of progress took a back seat to destruction.  Innovation rocked because you could blow stuff up. “The world may not be getting better and better,” Lepore wrote, “but our devices are getting newer and newer.”

Look outside your window in May 2020. What do you see? Disruption everywhere. Almost nothing you knew on March 15 is the same.  Restaurants. Sports. Air travel. Stores. Religion.

My evoked set for cereal. All blown up.

The disruption is complete.  It’s been done for you.  It’s as if someone threw a deck of cards into the air and all of your connections, comforting rituals, and evoked sets are swirling around above your head.  They will land in the next couple of years.  And when they do, the deck will be scrambled. Permanently.

Sometimes I've believed as many
as six impossible things before
A Mantra for the New Normal: Move Fast and Heal Stuff

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, entrepreneurs had been focused on creative innovation that improves the world.  For the last two decades, we’ve been focused on blowing stuff up.  Move fast and break stuff

Was there ever dumber advice?

In the face of this pandemic, however, we are already seeing the change.  And it’s good.  

Entrepreneurs immediately began working to help low-income K-12 students navigate school shutdowns. Innovators used data to improve access to ventilators, and to help reduce the spread of misinformation about the virus.  Entrepreneurs devised a proning-cushion to help sick patients who did not need to be intubated, retooled LED lighting to UV-C lighting to decontaminate equipment, and created a platform that allowed female chef-owners around the world to teach cooking courses to those of us sheltering at home.

Vaccines.  Education.  Telemedicine. The list goes on.  It’s optimistic and heartening and feels so different from the last few decades. 

Of course, there have always been entrepreneurs focused on creation, on progress.  But today, there is almost no other choice.  Why spend any effort disrupting stuff when it’s all been done for you?

Move fast and heal stuff. A matra for the new normal.  Creation before destruction.  If you can build and mend, grow and heal--new opportunities are everywhere.

Like I said, there's a box of Kashi cereal in our pantry. To channel Groucho Marx, sometimes a box of cereal is just a good breakfast. Sometimes, though, it's the shape of things to come.


  1. Somehow I find myself reading your blog and enjoying the ride-must be the entertaining way in which you firm sentences. My favorite sentence: Of course, there have always been entrepreneurs focused on creation, on progress. I hope this refers to me, at least this is my mission. Thanks for the very early morning lesson on the order if things post Foucault.

  2. Ive never been more invested in a story about a cereal type, and I have no idea what kashi even is.