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Communications of the ACM

The Profession of IT

A Map for Innovation

pin marks a location on a map

Credit: Triff / Shutterstock

In his book Seven Habits, Stephen Covey tells the story of a salesman who traveled to Chicago to close an important deal.1 His host sent him a snippet of a downtown map and a business card. When he arrived, he located the address on the map and found his way there. To his surprise, the business had no offices in that building. He called his host, who said, "C'mon, it's not that difficult to find our address. Try harder." So the salesman redoubled his efforts to locate the business by looking at alternate addresses that could be lost to typos. He visited those places: still, no luck. In exasperation, he called his host again. Now his host, obviously annoyed at the delay, berated him and asked him to adopt a better attitude or it would not be worth visiting. The salesman tried again with a more upbeat attitude about the goodness of the pending deal, but he still could not locate the office. By this time, the intended start time of the meeting was long past. In anger and frustration, he returned to the airport and went home. After he calmed down, he called his host again to try to reschedule. His host said, "I'm so glad you called. I inadvertently sent you a Detroit map instead of a Chicago map. No wonder you could not find us." Covey's moral: No amount of trying harder or attitude adjustment will get you to your destination if you have the wrong map.

Many who seek innovation feel stuck, like that hapless salesman. Their maps are books that tell them how to form startups, get new product lines going in their organizations, or defeat change-resistant bureaucracies.3 Executives, managers, and working professionals have tried the guidelines advocated in these books. They followed the steps, tried harder, and adjusted their attitudes. Yet, innovation eluded them. Business surveys confirm this, finding that approximately 95% of innovation projects fail.2


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