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  • Niki Ernst

The Anatomy of Innovation

I am writing these unfrequent posts because I love sharing my observation, thoughts, ideas, vision and passion with you. But also because one of these Silicon Valley Memes that hit home at me the most, is:

if you want to raise the ships, you have to elevate the water. 


The past ten years have been incredibly intense in my life, I went through a rollercoaster of emotions, from losing a company to building a new one. From growing with my children to seeing them leaving the nest, one after the other, embarking their independent life, building their own stories. 


In these ten years, I have also worked with hundreds of speakers, coaching them from idea to stage and learning from them on a daily basis. I have worked with a speaker who has been incarcerated and instead of being in self-pity, he developed a life-compass for his inmates and wrote a „welcome-handbook for prisoners“, I have worked with a women that got sold by her mother at child-age and managed to escape a human trafficking scheme when she was 12. I have worked with speakers who live a life, ten years ahead of us and I worked with speakers who help us understand where we all come from and how we can rewire our brain to make smarter future decisions. My last ten years have maybe been a life of one of the most privileged people on this planet.


my favorite storybook

A life that also exposes me to defining parameters, how my own life can improve, and how I can avoid far out mistakes that ground in small every day decisions.

When we talk about innovation, we often think about new products that potentially have success on future markets. We still separate the concepts of being and doing. 

I began to dig into the anatomy of Innovation and it soon became clear to me that  innovative people have in common: they are what they doand the do what they are.  I have not seen one person, representing something (which is the result from separating being and doing) and being really outstanding at it.


I truly belief that technology will very soon replace everyone who representsbut will never get close to replacing humans being and living their passion.


I would like to share with you the Anatomy of Innovation, as I see it:

First of all, like many things, Innovation (or being innovative) is not 1 (one) thing. As I love structure and three is a magic number, let me structure innovation in three important streams:

1) Method 2) Mindset 3) Zeitgeist


The method-part is the easiest to cover, because like LEGO bricks, there is so much in circulation and you just have to chose, what works best for you. I really like Design Thinking, because it makes you learn so fast how to distinguish between knowing what works and what does not work, Agileleans very much into cultural aspects, but as it’s still treated as a transformation method, it also risks the same bounce-back just as Change Managementdid in the 1990ies and thereafter. 

Just recently, for last weekend’s TEDxKlagenfurt, I worked with Benjamin Hardy (read his books!) and he shared a thought that makes a lot of sense for me:

100% is easier than 98%


He explains this by the amount of thoughts we have, every day. And 100% just means that it becomes so natural, we don‘t even have to think about it. 


In Silicon Valley, 1000 ideas incorporate into a company, every week. 9 Months later, 6 of them still exist as a company. When I zoom in to these 6, what I see is companies that have been successfully innovative with a new product or service, but not at all innovative with their corporate structure. They just turn into the next big player with the exact same structure. 

A few weeks ago, I met the Growth Hackers in San Francisco and it became clear to me that installing a „director of growth“, combined with a strong data science teamwho really comes along well with a product development team, will not only replace marketing and sales as a strategic pillar of the organization but also combine the best of both worlds of hierarchical and flat corporate structures. 


I mentioned a lot about speaker coaching and I am 100% convinced that every (!) manager in the world should be a pro in public speaking. Too many times, I have seen c-suite and above on a stage, wondering what they are doing there.


It might not be present to your thoughts, but you are not only talking about what your company is doing, you are also representing your company. 


And it hits me by surprise that companies are investing millions of dollar in advertising but nothing (or not enough) in turning your managers into platinum speakers. Because both advertising AND your managers represent your company. So thats that.


at the WIX.com headquarter in Tel Aviv

Let’s talk about mindset. People ask me a lot about my thoughts on how Silicon Valley is different from other innovative places in the world. And of course there are some hard facts that make SV what it is, today: 25% of US venture capital is traded on only one road. And outside of Sandhill Road in Palo Alto, the whole ecosystem combined makes about 75% of US venture capital in circulation. Thats already a significant number. Two years ago, I have counted 74 universities in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. But one thing, I have never experienced anywhere else in the world, is how people are treating eachother. On my last flight from Vienna to San Francisco, I had a really nice conversation with a business woman, and she said:

I really love Vienna, but I don‘t like the people, there. And I really hate San Francisco but I love the people, there.


And it is true - to some extend, of course: if you share your idea with someone in Vienna, it could happen, that s/he will give you 5 reasons why you might fail. 5 relevant and critical factors that might make the difference between success and failure. If you share the same idea with someone in San Francisco, s/he will introduce you to five people, you should have a conversation with, to get smarter in your space. Europe is really good at building fear. In 90% of the conversations, I have in Europe, fear is an actor in the plot. We fear any form of change. We see a threat in any form of innovation. And all these thoughts and arguments are good, valid and strong. 


You can embark such a conversation with full confidence and promise you, you will leave it with doubt. Fear sits within our reptile brain, the biggest of our brains, the first one we had and it‘s the most established. As long as we have an Amygdala telling us to run from the fire, we will never burn our fingers. But fear also consumes a lot of time, energy and attention that we could as well use at the same time to better understand and make things work for us. The example of taking 30 linear steps (1m+1m+1m+….=30m) versus 30 exponential steps (each step twice as long as the one before - adds up to walking 25 times around the world) tells me one thing: if we wait and watch others taking their first steps, in an exponential world we will never be able to catch up. Never.


The future skill of a successful leader will be to design intrinsic motivation. Or, in other words: being champion in making things important for people. Conference-life taught me: everyone down the ladder cares a little less than the above: the curator cares more than the speaker, the speaker cares more than the audience. This means, the curator sets the bar of importance that lifts the speaker to care more about his talk. And I have never seen an audience excited about a talk about which the speaker did not care at all. 

Same is with any project in business: how important can it actually be for a team, if the project-leader seems not to care. The first kick off of any project has one major role: make the project important to everyone in the game. 


Another organization that hit home with me, is Jaunty. They have put together 7 Skills of Social Intelligence. Social Intelligence is the ability to behave in a way that others enjoy having you around them. They talk about body-language (what your body says can come louder than your words), conversational agility (does arrive what you send out? Do you often feel missunderstood?), assertiveness (do you make it easy for others to take your feedback? Passive people might have a tough time hoping, their actions are loud enough, so they don‘t have to talk about it. Aggressive people often have a good point, but they are making it really hard for us to take and accept it, and passive aggressive people are just the worst. Lol. The art of answering to any random sentence in perfect British English might not be everyones skill, but humoris something everybody can learn. Just a few hours a week on YouTube, watching Improv-Tutorials can already change a lot. Charismis a skill you can learn, as well. Sometimes touch can work well, often enough it is simply learning to listen and remove (!) everything that says: here is something more important than you. The mobile phone is a killer. It always wins. Over everything. Every notification about a new WhatsApp message kills a real-life conversation. The mobile phone even wins over the mobile phone: when you are having a call and a beep comes in - are you also checking who has just written a message to you? Did you ever go to a conference, not willing to have a conversation with anyone? I would say, it’s very unlikely. But how come, it is so difficult for so many people, to approach another? There are different types of approach(you approach someone, someone approaches you, someone introduces someone to you) of which only one is not based upon hope. And there is science, how people stand towards each other at events. Go look for „open two“ or „open three“ setups, these are the best to make this event a great experience for you. Happy to share more about this if you are interested. Last not least the personal default setting. We all bend ourselves into a version of ourself, we do not really want to be. And of course this version of ourselves attract people, we do not really want to hang. A simple and effectful tweak to become more and more the person you actually are, is to ask yourself the question, every day before you hit the hay: „was I the person, I want to be, today? Was today a good snapshot of myself? Having the right mindset is not a downloadable thing. It’s a series of decisions you make, following a good portion of self reflection. But the right mindset is the foundation of every innovation that came to stay longer than just a nice sharing of ideas at a random dinner party.


Lastly Zeitgeist, on my list. It‘s fun, how a German word can become meaningful, once it is used in English. Since 2012 about 500 people have participated at the Silicon Valley Inspiration Tours. Which is a cool thing, and I am happy for everyone who had this experience. Feedback went from „This week has changed my life“ to „know, I know what to do next“ and many other overwhelming and touching testimonials of an experience that cut participants life into before that - and after it. People who take a step aside to get a hand full of fresh thinking are very likely to be ahead of their competitors, soon. But what really makes a difference, is finding your permanent influx of inspiration. 


What is true today, can be wrong tomorrow. Alvin Toffler once said: „the illiterate of the 21st century are not those who can‘t read and write, but those who can‘t learn, unlearn and relearn.“ Peter Diamandis in convinced, „if you want to predict the future, you have to create it“. I am not encouraging you to applaud every invention and embrace ideas that feel weird and wrong to you, what I am stressing is: it makes a lot of sense to know, learn and understand what is going on, in the innovation part of the world, and my very personal piece of advice is to spend a little less time, reading the news and a little more time on understanding innovation that is going to be responsible for solving our planets biggest problems.


Understanding Zeitgeist automatically will drive you to shaping Zeitgeist. We live in a window of time. In only a few years, our population will have grown to 10 billion. And everything we do today - they way we eat, the way we educate and learn, the way we produce energy, the way we produce energy, the way we communicate and the way we commute - will not be possible on a 10B populated planet.


The day you retire you should look back at these years and know for yourself that you have been architect of this future. And I you will not be able to say this about your life, you will have missed something. Because you are. You are architect of our future.

Curious to hear what you think about it.

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Niki Ernst

The Businesstherapist.

Founder and CEO of IACy e.U.
The Innovationagencynetwork

Arnethgasse 44/26

1160 Vienna

Austria