Saul Kaplan: Innovation Lessons From Tarzan

photo-saulInnovators leap across learning curves exploring new ways to deliver value the way Tarzan swung from vine to vine across the jungle.  Innovators thrive on the steepest part of the learning curve where the changing rate of learning is the greatest.  Watch how innovators manage their careers and lives. They always put themselves on a steep learning curve.  I know I always have.  Staying on a steep learning curve is the most important decision criterion for any career decision an innovator makes. Along the way innovators make many career moves none of which are primarily about titles, offices, number of direct reports, or money.  Innovators believe those things are more likely to happen if they keep themselves on steep learning curves. Every choice to take a new tack or direction is about the next learning curve. Innovators are self aware enough to know they do their best work while learning at a rapid rate and are bored to tears when they aren’t.  Steep learning curves matter most.

I have known many people who sacrificed learning curves for money and other extrinsic rewards and in the long run most ended up unhappy. In my experience innovators who follow their passions and are in it for the learning always end up happier and making more money anyway.

The tricky part for innovators is to know when to leap from one learning curve to the next the way Tarzan traversed vines to move through the jungle.  Innovators get restless when any curve starts to flatten out.  Instead of enjoying the flat part of the curve where it takes less effort to produce more output, innovators get bored and want to find new learning curves where they can benefit from a rapidly changing rate of learning.  If the goal for innovators is to get better faster the only way to accomplish it is to live on the edge where the knowledge flows are the richest.  It isn’t the most comfortable place to be.  It’s understandable most suffer the pain of the steep part of the learning curve, not for the kick of learning, but to finally reach the flat part of the curve.  No urgency to move to another curve once the plateau is reached.  It is comfortable on the flat part of the curve where the workload lessens and rewards are only available to those that have paid their dues and put in the time to climb up the curve. Yet innovators seem to extract what they need from the steep part of the curve and leap off to do it again moving on to the steep part of the next curve just when the effort required to further climb the current curve gets easier.

Innovators are less interested in climbing further up learning curves than jumping from curve to curve.  They are like Tarzan (no loin cloth jokes please) traveling through the forest by jumping from vine to vine.  Innovators learn from each curve and cross-pollinate other curves with their interdisciplinary experiences.  Innovators are disruptive to those clinging to a single learning curve.  Picture the disruption caused while hanging on to a vine for dear life when Tarzan gives his bone jarring animalistic jungle cry before jumping on and swinging across the jungle leaping to the next vine.  That’s how disruption works.  Ideas from each learning curve are combined and recombined to create new ways to deliver value and solve problems.   Hanging around on a single curve as the rate of learning slows down is no way to get through the jungle.  Innovators with the benefit of leaping across learning curves will enable disruption and get through the forest faster.  Maybe an innovator’s jungle cry like Tarzan’s would help speed the innovation process.


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