Orbit-Shifting Innovation: A book review by Bob Morris

Orbit ShiftingOrbit-Shifting Innovation: The Dynamics of Ideas that Create History
Rajiv Narang and Devika Devaiah
KoganPage (2014)

A brilliant explanation of what orbit-shifting innovation is and how to make it happen

An orbit-shifting innovation is among the most disruptive. As Rajiv Narang and Devika Devaiah explain, it happens “when an area that needs transformation meets an innovator with the will and the desire to create, and not follow history. At the heart of an orbit-shifting innovation is the breakthrough that creates a new orbit and achieves a transformative impact.” Narang and Devaiah thoroughly examine the entire process, from initial insight to fulfillment and refinement.

They pose a question of special importance to me: “What are the real dynamics of executing an orbit-shifting innovation with as much focus as it takes to conceive it?” This book is their collaborative response to that question and duly acknowledge the valued assistance of their colleagues at Erehwon, a 20-year-old pioneering innovation firm.

So what drives their insights concerning orbit-shifting? They suggest three powerful sources: Hundreds of breakthrough innovation missions in which they have been involved thus far, leadership mindsets that they have studied for more than two decades of working with senior management teams, and direct experience with more than 100 “orbit shifters” that they have identified thus far. In other words, the information, insights, and counsel they provide are experience-driven, evidence-driven, and anchored in real-world business experience, theirs and others’.

They carefully organize and present their material as follows:

Part 1: Orbit shifts that created history
Part 2: Seeding orbit-shifting innovation
Part 3: Combating dilution in execution
Part 4: Leading orbit-shifting innovation

I agree with Narang and Devaiah that the most valuable insights, those that lead to breakthroughs, do not emerge during a process to generate as many ideas as possible; innovation does not equal ideation. Rather, innovation emerges as boundaries are identified. “This book surfaces our painful realization that most big ideas don’t get killed; they just get diluted.” That is to say, big ideas are reduced in terms of their potential value and impact.

By nature, orbit-shifts involve significant change. There are always barriers to such change and often cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” That is to say, big ideas are reduced in terms of their potential threat to the status quo and its defenders.

More often than not, Narang and Devaiah suggest, executing a breakthrough insight is more difficult than formulating it. They also stress the importance of an “out of the box challenge” that requires thinking beyond the given “box” or context. Only then can an orbit-shifting idea be generated.

Over the years, I have been retained to assist with hundreds of innovation initiatives and, with rare exception, the greatest challenge to those involved was to think innovatively about innovation. This is what Albert Einstein had in mind when asserting that problems can’t be solved with the same thinking that created them.

Innovative thinking should be sustained in any organization, whatever its size and nature may be, and at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. I agree with Narang and Devaiah that this process is best viewed as a never-ending journey – a series of orbit-shifting projects — rather than limited to any one of them. If a workplace environment is thought of as a greenhouse, potentially big ideas are seedlings that must be carefully nourished…and protected.

When concluding their book, Rajiv Narang and Devika Devaiah observe, “Whether in fiction or reality, the most enduring stories, the ones that excite us the most, are thee ones of orbit shifters, where ordinary people achieve the extraordinary. Where they create history, rather than follow it. Where they show us that there are no impossible dreams or problems, only limited dreamers and problem solvers.”

Through human history, there have been thousands of breakthrough ideas and that process will continue in months and years to come. New dreams will pose exciting new opportunities and new problems will present exciting new challenges. We would be well-advised, meanwhile, to keep in mind an astute observation by Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

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