“Which Way” Innovation: Choose Your Future


Jumping from the same diving board as our last post—coming from the idea that the more distinctions we can make around various kinds of innovation, the more discerning we can be around which kind we should best engage right now—let’s talk about your future.

To do that, allow me a quick reflection on my past.

As a kid, I really disliked reading. Avoided it like broccoli actually. But then a different kind of book piqued my curiosity. It actually let me redirect the plot at key points. Anybody remember “Which Way Books”? They went something like this:

You’re awoken in the middle of the night by a blast of thunder. Surprised by the strength of the wind and rain you hear, you decide to get out of bed to make sure all is well. As you make your way out into the dark hallway and look over the railing to downstairs, you suddenly sense you’re not alone and that someone is standing behind you.

To turn around and confront the intruder, turn to page 126.
To bolt down the stairs to safety, turn to page 113.

Get it? As the reader, you controlled the plot twists! Even as a young boy, I liked the idea of being in charge of helping to shape the story’s plot. As I’ve gotten older, not much has changed. I’d much rather proactively shape my future than let my future shape me and just react to what comes my way. Where’s the neospark in this?

There’s a huge difference between REACTIVE innovation and PROACTIVE innovation.

Reactive innovation occurs when we’re so stuck in the whirlwind of our day-to-day storm that, if we ever do seek to innovate, we only seek to solve smaller existing problems—the nagging ones right in front of us in the present. This is because hyper-busy leaders and teams have super-stuffed schedules with little to no margin to reflect on the larger challenges or deeper problems that are looming on the horizon. In other words, even though a fast pace is a ruthless dictator that extinguishes most innovative sparks, every now and then, by some freak chance, even a hyper-busy leader or team develops enough escape velocity to try to innovate. But when they do, the gravitational pull of today’s tasks usually keeps them in reactive innovation mode—coming up with quick solutions to current problems.

And while any impulse to innovate is noble and certainly to be encouraged, there is an even higher and more praiseworthy approach to innovation…

Proactive innovation is when we seek to solve bigger future problems, problems that don’t yet exist. I’d argue that this is the highest form of innovation as it involves the leadership art of futuring to anticipate the most pressing core problems of your target’s future and then envisioning bold future solutions to those future problems. Proactive innovators develop prescience—carefully considering market trends and cultural developments in order to predict challenges yet to be born to solve them before they can grow in strength and numbers. This requires mastering your time, not being mastered by it. It demands the discipline of putting your compass before your clock—letting your desired direction drive your calendar. No easy feat! But it’s worth it. Because this brand of innovation increases value and accelerates benefit by solving big problems sooner. And, more than any other species of innovation, it lets you control the plot twists, proactively shaping your future rather than letting it shape you.

There’s an obscure little passage from the Hebrew Bible that tells of a tribe of people who distinguished themselves with a heightened awareness to the times they lived in and how those times should impact their actions: “…the men of Issachar understood their times and knew what they should do…” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Now, these guys weren’t necessarily “innovators.” But they apparently had a knack for knowing how times were trending and shaped their present to forge their future. Their proactive intentionality revealed “which way” to go. I want to be a “man of Issachar.” How about you?


  1. Looking back over the last 3 months, which way are you going—reactive or proactive innovation?
  2. Looking ahead, what’s on the horizon in your field or industry? What are the likely shifts in technology, demographics, culture, or mindset that you can get ahead of and shape?
  3. What specific examples can you come up with for reactive and proactive innovations?


  1. GaryK

    Before taking a moment to reflect on the list of questions mentioned , I propose this first next step step.
    Identify what your “default tendency” is related to innovation style? Do you “rest” in a reactive space normally ( a neutral space) and reach out only with effort to be proactive in your innovation … or do you live in a “driven” space normally ( a active execution space) and have to make an effort to move into a reactive space to rest and contemplate ? I asked this compound question because knowing where you typically default in this arena leads to a better understanding of how your process will typically manifests itself with other team members.
    Personally, I tend to passively be on the lookout … always looking forward
    “around corners” so to speck, to identify innovation. Most people around me do not have that “looking around corners” skill. I do believe , however, that it can be acquired and or developed and is essential to achieving proactive innovation.
    I find I find I live in a restful place and watch for (seek) forward positioned opportunities to be proactive in my innovation.

  2. Doug Murphy

    I like that 1 Chronicles verse, and Gary’s contextual question to ask oneself. I’m mostly reactive because I work in an atmosphere defined by the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ – without the capacity to clear a space for more revolutionary thinking… though hopefully that will be changing.


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