How Emergencies & Tragedies Create Innovation


Have you seen the More Cowbell sketch from Saturday Night Live? It’s more than just funny. Believe it or not, it’s a powerful metaphor for a successful work life. And it provides insight into the kind of people you need on your team, and what makes an effective team.

Everyone has at least one cowbell — it’s your unique, profitable talent people pay you for or your company’s unique offering. It’s something people have a fever for. When you discover it and give those people a ton of it, you gain success and happiness for both yourself and others. It’s a win-win.

A cowbell is simultaneously something you love doing and something other people really want as well (although, as we’ll see, you still will have detractors and critics). A cowbell creates joy for you and other people. It makes them yell for more. They can’t get enough.

Innovation is powerful- and by itself can fill a need or want. Innovation is also a way to escape red oceans and create your own powerful new category. And innovation can destroy existing powerhouses- for example, Netflix destroyed Blockbuster. Amazon destroyed Borders. Barnes & Noble was forced to copy the innovative Kindle with their own Nook to keep from following Borders into the brand garbage heap.

3 Steps From From Zero to Innovation Success

But how do you innovate, if you’ve never innovated before? Just answer these questions:

  1. Start With Questions: What’s the problem you want to solve? What’s the thing you want to make possible? What would people really love if it existed? What’s missing from the current situation? If need be, survey your customers for problems and ideas.
  2. Brainstorm ideas both alone and in teams.
  3. Taking your best ideas, what’s their value? What convinces you people will want it?

That step 3 is the tough part, but it becomes easier if you are clear on steps 1 and 2. The purpose of step 4 is to identify who is going to care about your innovation, who will or won’t use it, and how important it will be to them. The last step is about not stepping on your own hose — not shooting yourself in the foot.

Innovation Borne Of Emergency And Boundaries

Innovation is more likely to happen when you have finite resources. You might be able to create more with more resources, but in reality most people who have too much are less motivated and their ideas are less groundbreaking. In World War II we needed anti-aircraft guns. We streamlined production in a day.

Running out of options can make you really creative.

As city after city fell to Napoleon Bonaparte, he would acquire the most useless soldiers because his army would absorb the militia of the just-conquered city. He put those useless soldiers in front for the next attack. The enemy would go at those guys and think they were winning, but then Napoleon would advance the two well-trained divisions he had positioned on the flanks. They would surround and capture the enemy, earning victory by way of a “collapsing line.”

That’s a creative way to be destructive! If you’re into that kind of thing.

What Gap Do You Need To Fill?

That’s what she said. Be really aware of what doesn’t exist. Step 1 is to identify what’s missing. What can’t be done? What can’t be found? We need something we don’t have. What’s the gap? What innovation could fill it in?

If you don’t know what people have or value, or what the market already has created, you may be creating something new to you, but it’s not an innovation. For example, a lot of stand-up comedians have a Star Trek bit, but they’re all very similar: “The actor you’ve never seen before who is now wearing the red shirt? He’s going to die.” At least 11 comedians used that joke. It’s a funny observation they’ve all made; but after the first comedian uses it, it doesn’t fill a gap.  Do your research- sometimes you find out, not only does it already exist, but nobody wanted it!

Consider the Kickstarter project by Hendo Hoverboards. The hoverboard is a flying skateboard without wheels, a creation of the Back To the Future movie franchise of the 1980’s. Since then, the fact that we don’t have hoverboards yet, and the movie predicted we’d have them by 2015 has led to a memes and jokes on the top… But wait! A company called Hendo has created a magnetic hoverboard! And their Kickstarter project has already been successfully overfunded.

And by the way, do you know how many inventions we now use were originally conceived in Star Trek? At least ten! For example, we now have: transparent aluminum, communicators (cell phones), phasers (tazers), Geordi’s visor has been replicated in rats by Stanford scienists and video conferencing is common and affordable.

Pay attention to fiction- someone might have already brainstormed your next innovation, and all you need to do is create it!

Is Your Innovation Truly Useful?

The cowbell criterion of usefulness in fundamental. You might have come up with a great idea but it had no application. The Puritans had buckles on their hats and buckles on their shoes, but they didn’t wear belts. That’s just weird. Now we buckle belts, not hats and shoes. We use them in a different and better way now.

You could create something that’s unfortunately not applicable at the time. You could, like Nikola Tesla, seem more relevant a century later. That’s innovation, sure — but isn’t it better to create something that fills a need now?

There has to be a real and present need or desire for your innovation. It needs to be relevant when developed, not just in the future. Illustrating our point, we hope you use this book in 2014, not in 2814. Although, our time traveling reporter in the field tells us that this book is still a bestselling in 2814. Great news for us, right? Well, no, we’ll be dead then. We need a time travel banking innovation to get all our money!

This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming book The Cowbell Principle: Career Advice On How To Get Your Dream Job And Make More Money, by Garrison Wynn and Brian Carter. Brian and Garrison will be giving away a limited number of digital copies at launch time. To get notified when they’re available, sign up at


By Brian Carter, Guest Blogger