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Find Your Startup's Equivalent of Elon Musk's Mission to Mars Musk's bold bet to colonize Mars is a lesson in future-focused innovation.

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We've all heard the classic proverb, "necessity is the mother of invention." Indeed, the world is full of examples that prove out the concept, from the simple (using an eraser tip to replace an earring back) to the profound (the ingenuity of NASA problem-solvers during the Apollo 13 mission). We also see this play out as a key driver of marketplace innovations, whether for Fortune 500 corporations, or for brand new enterprising startups.

But, when we consider this age-old wisdom in the context of modern innovation, we are faced with a second, somewhat unsettling truth ... that if you wait until necessity forces you to innovate, quite often you will have already missed the window of opportunity. Visionary business owners need to look at innovation with an eye firmly fixed on the future, imagining "what could be" even before the business case is clear and fully documented.

Consider Elon Musk's goal to colonize Mars by 2024. While this concept seems like something pulled from the pages of science fiction, Musk doubled-down at the recent International Astronautical Congress, where he shared his willingness to "cannibalize" SpaceX's existing products in order to create a new Interplanetary Transport System. Many questions remain unanswered on the heels of his announcement, but for all the skepticism, there are some key lessons from SpaceX's story that you should apply to your own innovation mindset.

Related: 5 Habits That Made Elon Musk an Innovator

Focus on the future.

Most companies and brands rely far too much on "me-too" innovations and small incremental changes to respond to what competitors -- and customers -- were doing yesterday. But, great innovators take a more forward-looking view of customer needs and motivations, to imagine the differentiated solutions that customers will be willing to pay price premiums for in the future. Sounds obvious and simple of course, but take a critical eye to your own innovation pipeline. How many truly future-focused innovations do you have in the lineup?

Related: The 100 Most Brilliant Business Ideas

Recognize challenges to overcome them.

Colonizing Mars is a lofty goal, to be sure, but SpaceX is meeting its challenges head-on. Facing prohibitive launch costs, for example, SpaceX innovated reusable rocket technologies to make its missions more economically feasible. What do we learn? Doing the due diligence to understand the range of potential pitfalls on the path to executing your innovation vision will put you in the best position to overcome them and push forward.

Related: 21 Weird Things You Didn't Know About Mark Zuckerberg

Collaborate to expand capabilities.

Too many innovations that start out as big ideas are brought to market as dramatically reduced 'good enough' options due to the limitations of existing capabilities. But, from Musk another important lesson is brought to the forefront. Where you have gaps in your ability to deliver the full innovation objective, close those gaps via collaboration. SpaceX hasn't yet revealed plans for how it would sustain life on Mars. Instead, Musk claims his focus is on building the transportation system, which would create the opportunity for others to design a way to keep inhabitants alive.

Related: Amazon's Lesson About Disruption: Rattle Any Market You Can

To the leader go the spoils.

Clearly, we can't know the end of the story just yet for SpaceX, but history shows that companies that create new categories experience much faster growth and achieve higher valuations than companies bringing only incremental innovations to market. Only by setting your sights high can you achieve breakthrough product or business model innovation as a true Category Creator ... and it doesn't get much higher than Mars!

Musk will run into plenty of challenges bringing such a breakthrough concept to market and getting the execution right to successfully launch it. But, dreaming big and overcoming challenges are key chapters in all transformative innovation stories. Those who want to dismiss this as a crazy -- and expensive -- pipe dream might want to pause and recognize that breakthrough innovation only seems obvious in the rear-view mirror. It is often risky and unclear when viewed through the day-to-day business windshield.

If you are planning just one move ahead when it comes to your innovation strategy, the reality is you are probably lagging behind your innovative competitors. You have to embrace outsized goals and work several steps ahead to realize outsized results and shape the future.

Chris Fosdick and Linda Deeken

Principal and CMO of The Cambridge Group

Chris Fosdick is a principal at The Cambridge Group, a strategy consulting firm and subsidiary of Nielsen. He advises clients in developing demand-driven growth strategies and responding to change. Linda Deeken is The Cambridge Group's CMO and has contributed to several books released by the firm.

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