The Zen of Innovation

Posted by on Jul 2, 2011 in Blog | 0 comments

The Zen of Innovation

Wikipedia defines Zen as “emphasizing experiential wisdom in the attainment of enlightenment…” Sounds a bit deep and cerebral but it really isn’t. It’s actually quite practical.  Almost every organization and certainly the vast majority of Biopharma companies would say that they are innovative. But when you speak with many of these companies, they are

quick to share stories about just how challenging it is to innovate. Their experiential wisdom seems to be about the attainment of capital to innovate – not innovation itself.

Is there a way to rectify this? I recently read an article which dealt with the zen-like focus so many successful golfers use to dominate their peers, courses and to ultimately win Championships. The most recent example of this is Rory McIlroy. McIlroy recently dominated the field at the US Open Championships.  The article went on to make the point that part of the reason for success in golf, as in life, is purposeful focus or …”being in the moment”.  Can a Biopharma business have “the moment”, a zen-like focus or experiential wisdom, leading to enlightened innovation?

To me, the key word in the definition of Zen is “experiential” – what you are currently experiencing and therefore, focused on, matters. It matters a great deal.

Innovation Energy

So much of the energy that is created inside Biopharma companies is directed to non-innovative activities. The ‘experiential wisdom’ is about how to find sources of capital, how to re-calibrate process and how to manage people. If these necessary but energy-robbing, ‘zen-killing’ activities could be outsourced, the energy needed for innovation may get a chance to flourish.

Scarcity of Wisdom

Often times, what is in scarce supply is not money but wisdom. This means that even with adequate capital, organizations who lack the proper experiential wisdom still won’t be able to innovate. Many confuse invention with innovation. Inventions sometimes have a ‘eureka’ moment – a nano-second when the solution to an age old problem appears as if by magic. Of course, it may take many years to then perfect the invention but the initial spark happens in a flash.  The energy for this flash is a mystery.


Innovation is different. It is evolutionary in form, persistently energetic in character and requires a certain sustained posture and focus, that over time, creates the conditions that are ripe for the innovative energy and ‘wisdom’ to take hold.  Many organizations dilute and dissipate this needed energy and focus with activities that will never provide a matching return when compared to the benefits of innovation.

Innovation also requires a different outlook on that awful word – failure. No one has ever succeeded 100% of the time yet anyone who’s ever been to Vegas or the ponies always tells you about their successes and almost never their losses. Innovation isn’t about lucky gambling. What it is about is summarized with words like change, mastery, competence, failure, persistence and yes, even success. Innovation comes as a package where achieving success requires you to understand your failures (dare I say, even embrace your failures) before you can move on and eventually, finally, finally achieve success.

Keep your coins, we want change.

‘Managing change’ sometimes creates the false impression that we can determine the origins of change, the path it will follow or its ultimate destination. We usually cannot yet we still need to understand it and take steps to both mitigate associated risks and maximize associated opportunities. The fuel needed for innovation is change itself and like all fuels, when handled poorly, bad things can and often do happen.  Biopharma organizations will be stronger where they set out to embrace change, understand it, master it, and use its energy to channel innovation.
So, ‘innovation zen’ is not about you and your staff locking yourselves in the conference room in a meditative trance. It is about getting your organization to seize the moment AND be in the moment.  Being in the moment means that the organizational energy and focus should yield innovative wisdom which in turn moves the organization into a more competitive space and ultimately into the winners circle. With ‘innovation zen’, you can smell a winning spirit before you can actually see any winner coming at you. So, the Master has spoken so go, Little Grasshoppers, and innovate. 🙂



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