Cover Stories Innovate On The Cover September 2017

Hacking Successful Innovations

Written By: David Whitney

Josh Linkner is the author of “Hacking Innovation: The New Growth Model from the Sinister World of Hackers.” I am a regular reader of Josh’s blog as it features highly relatable insights and observations, and it was by reading Josh’s blog that I became aware of his book. “Hacking Innovation” chronicles Linkner’s immersion into “the dangerous and clandestine world of hackers” and contains the insights he gleaned from connecting with ex-cons, secretive hacking societies, the FBI and cybersecurity giants.

Linkner weaves interesting tales of how he explored “the caffeine-driven world of tech startups, revealing the stealthy practices that have launched tech founders into the rarified billionaires club.” I recommend “Hacking Innovation” as I found it to be a terrific read.

The concepts of hacking and hackers are of worldwide fascination. Often, the perception of hacking and hackers is a negative one. That’s because the concepts are associated with nefarious activities performed across the globe, namely cybercrime. Cybercrime — among other consequences — represents a massive threat to countries’ national security systems, disruption to the global economy, and attacks on individuals’ privacy and personal safety. The exploits of hackers are splashed across the internet, are the subject of loud and increasingly fearful public debate and permeate social media.

In performing research for his book, Linkner sought to put aside hackers’ sinister motives even as he delved into the dark underworld of hackers, where he encountered — fortunately — individuals possessing creative, innovative minds, intelligence and good intentions.

Linkner’s discovery made me wonder: What if hacking methods produced productive, positive results — and were not restricted to being associated with negative outcomes? In the book, Linkner himself wondered how best to harness “the positive attributes of hacking to drive meaningful results in our companies, careers, and communities.”

The more I read, the more my perception of hacking and hackers changed for the better. As I learned more, my curiosity about the origins of hacking and hackers deepened. That’s when I researched the terms’ origin and uncovered an article written by Paul Graham, a founder of the game-changing Y Combinator startup accelerator. Paul Graham is a giant in innovation and entrepreneurship circles, and I have deeply admired what he and the YC team did to change how startups “accelerated” into larger companies.

Therefore, I was intrigued by Graham’s take on hacking and hackers. I learned about Graham’s insights from an article he wrote in 2004 before the term “hackers” was widely known and universally applied. Graham wrote: “Hackers are unruly. That is the essence of hacking. And it is also the essence of Americanness. It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in America, and not France, or Germany, or England, or Japan. In those countries, people color inside the lines.” Why, of course — hackers and hacking are rooted in Americanness!

Graham went on to write about the nature of hacking and the disposition and personality of hackers. “It is greatly to America’s advantage that it is a congenial atmosphere for the right sort of unruliness — that it is a home not just for the smart, but for smart-types who are invariably smart-alecks. If America had a national holiday, it would be April 1. Hacking is something done by smart-alecks with a smirk, a wink, and a gleeful laugh.”

Though I do not endorse or condone the diabolical actions or criminal activities of ill-intended hackers, I am intrigued by well-intended hackers’ unorthodox problem-solving methods. Hacking’s unorthodox approaches can produce innovative products and services that reflect fresh solutions and, hopefully, result in ongoing business success and sustainable profits.

By folding hacking’s unconventional methods into its existing innovation culture, an organization’s “this is how it is done here” philosophy can reflect hacking activities (elements of unorthodoxy) and hackers’ attitudes (acceptable degrees of unruliness) in its daily operations.

For organizations committed to innovation, instilling and maintaining a “hacking” culture is essential. To do so, first, leadership must make clear that the organization’s hacking culture applies to everyone — and benefits everyone. Second, wide latitude must be given to everyone pursuing and engaging in innovation-related activities; that is, the organization’s definition of “innovation” must be clearly defined and open to interpretation by those involved in any and all activities related to innovation. And third, everyone in the organization must look for innovation where it may not always be so obvious, practical or feasible. When this occurs, a “hacked” innovation culture can unify the organization while helping to enhance its ability to operate with speed, agility, purpose and passion.

But, in order to hack an innovation culture successfully, an organization must make the “hack” come to life. This is how Steve Blank, a serial entrepreneur-turned-educator who changed how startups are built and how entrepreneurship is taught, tells it: An organization needs “heroes and stories about employees who created new business models, new products and new customers. The stories need to be about new product lines created out of a crazy proposed solution; or the stories need to be about heroes like an experienced manager who assembled the best teams to work on projects characterized as long-shot innovations. Or there needs to be stories about managers who adapted and adopted and acquired a disparate collection of products and transformed them into a cohesive product line that achieved commercial success. Or the engineers who left the building, spoke with customers about customer needs and wants, and then built a product that served these needs and wants.”

Engaging in hacks makes sense given that innovation continues to fuel the frenetic pace of the expanding global economy. With no end in sight to the feverish pace that accompanies activities surrounding innovation, organizations seeking to commercialize relevant and successful innovative solutions must learn to hack. This is done not only for the sake of launching new product and service innovations but also to create and operate evolving business models capable of withstanding the heat of the world’s competitive economy.

That is why I recommend innovators — regardless of organization size — follow two actionable steps for hacking successful innovations:

  1. Do Something New, Produce Something Unique

Overcoming innovation roadblocks is a good place to start in doing something new and producing something unique. I wrote about how to identify and navigate innovation roadblocks in the July 2017 issue of Business in Greater Gainesville, so breaking through gridlock is doable, though not always easy. The key to overcoming gridlock is for an innovation-oriented organization to have in place a culture and a system where doing something new and producing something unique is standard operating procedure. And remember: “Do something new and produce something unique” is good enough. Best of all, doing something new and producing something unique most likely reflects the culture of an innovating organization’s people, the processes and systems already in place and the existing operations that support innovation-related activities.

  1. Make Innovation Activities Continuous

Innovation is much more than correctly identifying a problem. And, innovation is also much more than solving the identified problem with a marketable, innovative solution. What innovation is about points to the process of hacking successful innovations, which has no defined starting points and does not conclude with specific finish lines. The continuous process is a catch-all hack that involves everything from what problems are identified to how solutions are conceived to when products or services are brought to market to, finally, why some innovations succeed while others fail.

That is why making innovation activities continuous amounts to a process. And, this process can be imbedded in the organization’s culture as well as be reflective of its peoples’ mindsets. By incorporating the practices of making innovation activities continuous and exercising a communal hacking mindset involving innovation, innovators can position their organizations to operate more competitively and more adeptly while also applying a sharper-eyed customer-focus. When these practices occur, larger profitability and increased market share usually result.

That’s important because improvements in both profitability and market share are especially sought-after in today’s hyper-competitive global marketplace. That’s because an ever-expanding global marketplace made more open because of technology’s capacity and power has resulted in a competitive landscape where decreasing profit margins — and an across-the-board mandate to do more with less — have challenged organizations to apply more imaginative methods to commercialize innovations capable of generating ever-larger revenues and producing ever-expanding profit numbers.

But, beware of innovation activities continuous serve as a cure-all for organizations that are not adept at producing successful innovations. Just committing to making innovation activities continuous does not mean success will result; that is because the culture and process of innovation is a game of discovery, testing, launching, failing, learning, re-testing, re-launching and hopefully — at some point in this continuous process — succeeding. By always engaging in a process of making innovation activities continuous, organizations are able to experience first-hand the importance of making incremental small-step-forward innovations.

Innovation successes characterized by these small, continuous steps forward are the most attainable. That is why I recommend this approach — and not the difficult-to-achieve giant leaps forward through game-changing, industry-leading innovative breakthroughs – for innovation-oriented organizations. When the small-steps-forward approach occurs and innovators do something new and produce something unique, the organizations and the “hackers” that reside in them are on a path forward to hacking successful innovations.


DAVID WHITNEY writes regularly on concepts and companies associated with innovation and entrepreneurship. Whitney is the co-Chair of Innovation Gainesville 2.0, a regional-based initiative in which people and organizations collaborate to strengthen Gainesville’s innovation economy by bringing 3,500 jobs and securing $250 million in capital investment to the region.

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