Steve Blank on Why ‘Innovation Heroes’ are a Bad Sign

By Hadley Thompson |  July 1, 2024

In this episode, we talk with Steve Blank about why celebrating innovation heroes is symptomatic of a problem in large organizations. Steve is a serial entrepreneur, author, and educator and leading advocate for the methodology of customer development and the lean startup approach.

In a recent Substack piece, Blank writes about an innovation awards ceremony he attended at a government agency:

“I’m constantly puzzled why thoughtful and astute CEOs and agency directors never ask, why is it that innovations require heroics to occur in our organization? Why don’t we have a repeatable process for innovation? What are the obstacles in the way of delivering needed innovation with speed and urgency in our organization? And why is it that after each one of these [innovation] awards we give out, we don’t go back and fix the parts of the system that made creating something new so difficult?”

Blank talks about the role of senior leaders, and the concept of an innovation doctrine. And he touches on the significance of AI: “I think this is as important as anything we’ve seen in tech in probably the last 50 years,” he says.

You can subscribe to our podcast, “Innovation Answered,” on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Podcasts. A transcript of this episode is below.

Here’s a snippet from this episode…

Scott Kirsner: 

Last question is just about generative AI, since you just touched on that — or all flavors of AI, let’s call it generative, ML, robotic process automation, any type of AI. Is that different from the other technologies that you just mentioned — quantum, blockchain, the metaverse? I feel like there are some people out there that are kind of making the case that, “Oh, this is a one or two year trend, and we’ll be on to something else in 2025.” Sometimes I almost feel like they’re rooting or hoping for AI to be overhyped, and go poof. How do you think about it, and its significance?

Steve Blank:

You know, when you’re in the middle of something, it’s hard to understand how big is it. But this one kind of feels like the invention of the personal computer and the Internet rolled into one. And I say that not from the…generative AI stuff in business apps, but the stuff I see in the life sciences. The first time I started paying attention was when something called AlphaFold showed up in life sciences. Basically, if there was a person who did that, they would have won the Nobel Prize — that was the ability to predict how proteins fold. People have been trying to solve that problem for 75 years, both in theory and computation and using X-ray crystallography. But a software program, literally three years ago, changed the entire world for molecular biologists. And by the way, we’re now on AlphaFold 3…

But on the tech side, the fact that we’re still seeing an arms race between, you know, ChatGPT and Anthropic and everybody else and Claude and it has not slowed down, I think we’re seeing some incredibly capable stuff that’s going to be force multipliers in a lot of industries. The fact that Copilot has been out long enough to actually see some huge productivity gains — that allows folks to auto-generate code, it allows people to create blogs and websites. I think this is as important as anything we’ve seen in tech in probably the last 50 years, is the short answer to your question.