Reinhold Messner is a mountaineer, adventurer and explorer from South Tyrol whose astonishing feats on Everest and on peaks throughout the world have earned him the status of the greatest climber in history, according to Wikipedia.
Messner has provided us with many reflections and quotes about his philosophy of life, about the sense of taking risks, and about leadership and challenge. These thoughts and readings are extremely useful for management practice, mainly in turbulent, uncertain and risky times. Talking about innovation, he said that “the true innovator is who goes there where nobody else is”. This wonderful sentence summarizes the true, pioneering, sportive spirit of innovation: going there, where no other has gone before.
It exceptionally clarifies the concept of innovation from the management point of view: innovation is no mere improvement, because improvement means no risk-assumption. Innovation incorporates a superior level of risk, looking for an exclusive competitive space (new combination of market and product, new business model or new way to do things). This exclusivity will provide you with a superior competitive advantage. What will you find, upon arriving to the summit, if you decide to innovate? Nothing. You will find loneliness, silence and wild solitude… You will arrive where no other competitor is. In economic terms, loneliness means no competition, a temporary monopoly. You will be diving in a blue ocean. And, arriving first to the summit, will give you the possibility of building first-mover advantages (you will be able to create entry barriers to new competitors through several strategies: learning curve, brand, new aggressive investments in R+D, strategic alliances with suppliers or distribution channels, privileged interaction with the new market…)
Ascending to the summit, from an economic point of view, is like ascending through the well known risk-competitive advantage curve (or, in financial terms, the risk-return of investment curve). A company can decide stay in the bottom of the mountain, where everybody is hiking in the comfort zone (and it should take into account that there will find a lot of other companies doing the same). Or it can decide to go to the summit, innovate, take the entrepreneurial initiative, find exclusive spaces and obtain superior competitive advantages. Many companies walk in the saturated forests. Only the true leaders dare to go to the summit.
Having the will to ascend means facing uncertainty and assuming risk. But Messner was not suicidal. He assumed more risk than the average walkers, to have the privilege of touching the sky, the intimal satisfaction of conquering the mountain till the very summit. He obtained superior emotional returns to his effort. And to achieve his goals, he was well trained, equipped and prepared, and studied in detail the path that conducts to the success. In the same manner, a firm should train and develop methodologies to try to conquer the summit, to escape the bottom, and avoid low-end and cost-erosive competition. A company can learn how to innovate. And it must prepare the roadmap, experiment and train with discipline before the attack, to maximize the success ratio. Innovation is, also, a learning process.
But above all, innovation is leadership. It is challenge and freedom. Is competition and (even), it is sport. It is a true way of life.
Thanks to Reinhold Messner for his thoughts and teachings (and thanks to Albert Bosch, Catalan adventurer and entrepreneur, for providing me with this illuminating original Messner quote)