Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Why Christopher Columbus was a master innovator

 We all know the old rhyme - "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue".  Further, we know the story - or at least some of it.  We know that Columbus was mocked for wanting to sail west to arrive in India.  We know that some of the experts in the time were certain he could not return, because either the distance was too great, or he'd sail off the edge of the world.  We also know now that Columbus discovered something other than what he had intended, but what he discovered had far more value than he and his patrons first believed.

What we may not appreciate is how similar Columbus's journey to success is to many who are trying to innovate in corporate settings.  Strange as it may seem, while we know a lot about Columbus' successes, we don't really fully appreciate the challenges of a relatively visionary innovator.

What Columbus shares with corporate innovators

Columbus was actually a stranger in a strange land.  He was originally from Italy, and moved to Spain, and then to Portugal, as a sailor, navigator and map maker.  At the time Spain and especially Portugal were leading the known world in navigation.  Portugal, under Henry the Navigator, was opening up the coastline of Africa and rounding the Cape of Good Hope.  But through all of this success, Columbus was on the sidelines.  He wasn't Portuguese or Spanish, and was not of the nobility.  In fact, for most of the time Columbus was chasing his dream of sailing west, he lived in monasteries or with people who supported his ideas.

  • In this way, Columbus is like a corporate innovator.  They are often strangers to the people and teams around them, seeking to create new ideas.  Many innovators aren't necessarily "at home" in any function or division, and need the support of others.  They often work with few resources and beg and borrow what they can get, much like Columbus.

Columbus managed to get the ear of royalty in Spain, in Portugal and even in France.  He shared his ideas about sailing west to reach India and other countries, seeking the blessings and support of the different royal families.  All of them entertained the ideas, but few seriously supported him.  They had other fish to fry.  The Spanish monarchs were busy with the Reconquest of Spain.  The Portuguese king was busy discovering and claiming Africa, and trying to keep Columbus from sharing his ideas with others.  They were happy to listen and entertain Columbus but were not willing to support him.

  • Corporate innovators share this experience with Columbus as well.  It can be strangely easy to get an audience about new ideas with executives, but equally difficult to get anyone to act on the ideas.  Many commentators have called this phenomenon "innovation theater".  Too often current issues or existing products grab the lion's share of attention, leaving innovation as an interesting sideshow.  As his story indicates, it can be difficult to get a sponsor and even more difficult to get a sponsor to act.

Columbus had no wealth, wasn't a native citizen and did not own a boat.  He had never sailed to the places he claimed he wanted to sail to.  He was completely dependent on others.  All he had was an idea and a significant amount of passion and commitment.  He met with the kings and queens of Spain and Portugal for over six years before they finally agreed to support him.

  • Corporate innovators can learn from Columbus in this way as well.  Columbus did not have the experience most people would think was necessary to do the work he was proposing.  He did not have the resources to do it.  All he had was commitment, passion and the desire to stick with his ideas until someone decided they would fund them.

One other interesting thing to note about Columbus' search for patrons:  the king and queen of Spain were not on the hook to fund the expedition!  Their funds were already depleted by the war against the Moors.  For several years a count in Spain had offered to give Columbus three ships and crew.  What Columbus wanted was the ability to claim land in the name of the King, and, unfortunately for his mission, he wanted a title and claim to the wealth.

  • Corporate innovators face the funding question as much as Columbus did.  What's always surprising to me is how little investment is required to generate and test new ideas, and how often a lot of funding is poured into existing ideas without good return, while innovation withers without funding.  The Spanish King and Queen invested almost nothing in Columbus' journey yet Spain had a windfall for several centuries after the the discovery of the New World.

Columbus had to gather a crew, some of whom were no doubt afraid to sail west into the unknown.  The Spanish sovereigns were so concerned about Columbus' ability to recruit sailors that they made it know that any criminals who signed up to sail with Columbus would receive a pardon.  He and his crew were going out in three very small boats, typically designed for sailing along a shore line, across an unknown amount of ocean to reach a destination many thought impossible.

  • Corporate innovators are exceptionally familiar with the experience of working with people who may not be fully "on board" with an innovation project or who were coerced into participating, and who are working with limited supplies with an uncertain aim.  While many innovation team participants aren't literally risking their lives to sail off into unknown waters, working on an unfamiliar and risky innovation project can seem like a career killer.

What Columbus got wrong as an innovator

The one area that Columbus got wrong as an innovator was his desire for wealth and titles.  As an individual who had been mocked for his low birth, and who faced obstacles throughout his life, his requests for titles and for wealth upon the discovery of the new world led many to think he was a charlatan, or simple a social climber.

Corporate innovators can avoid this issue by demonstrating that their ideas are for the success of the company, rather than for personal aggrandizement.  Columbus' demand for titles and wealth before he set sail was probably unreasonable and may have caused concern from the monarchs and the royalty he dealt with.  

What they discovered

There's one other item I think is important to mention, because it happens quite frequently.  Columbus was hoping to sail to India, but instead sailed to a western continent.  He did not find a new trade route to India to corner the spice market.  Instead, he discovered a new continent that the Spanish were able to exploit for centuries.  At first the discovery did not seem all that fantastic - there was little gold or jewels or spices that Columbus had promised.  But the discovery was far more valuable over time.

  • Corporate innovators need to set these kinds of expectations.  Good innovation often leads to new ideas and new discoveries that may be different from what was originally envisioned at the start of a project.  Findings and new ideas or newly discovered needs may not fully align with what was expected, but can prove even more valuable than what was originally intended.  Don't end the project because you failed to discover exactly what you set out to find.  Instead, ensure you review everything you learned and discovered to find all the value in the discovery.


To recap, Columbus was an unlikely hero, a stranger in a strange land, with no resources, limited backing, no experience and proposing a significant risk for a significant reward.  His executives and patrons were distracted by other important tasks and unwilling (or even unable) to fund the expedition. He fought through years of ridicule from people at court, royal geographers and navigators who rejected his ideas.

When he finally got the OK, years later, the patrons did not have funds and so another individual stepped forward with three boats, which were ill-suited to the purpose, but better than nothing.  Columbus sailed with a crew that in some cases was coerced into sailing with him, and several feared for their lives.  He discovered an unknown continent but failed to bring back what he had promised (gold and spices).

His entire story is entirely a metaphor for corporate innovation, and should give every corporate innovator the rationale to carry on.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:37 AM


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