I’m not sure if this is just a normal evolutionary step, or if maybe it is just peculiar to a few of the firms that I’ve spoken to, but it seems like often when an organisation decides that it needs to be more innovative, the first step is to try to become more ‘creative’. Consequently, the new innovation initiatives that are undertaken are often oriented entirely around the task of generating new ideas. Now, it’s true that I believe that innovation is an evolutionary process, and that part of that is the generation of variety. So new ideas are important. However, I also think that we frequently place far too much emphasis on the idea part of that process, when in fact selection and replication are the parts that are often more important. They are definitely harder to execute effectively – consequently, they probably deserve more management effort.
I ran across a thought-provoking piece by Kevin Kelly that reminded me of this topic today. Kelly contends that the appearance of new technologies is inevitable once the necessary supporting technologies are in place:
The procession of technological discoveries is inevitable. When the conditions are right — when the necessary web of supporting technology needed for every invention is established — then the next adjacent technological step will emerge as if on cue. If inventor X does not produce it, inventor Y will. The invention of the microphone, the laser, the transistor, the steam turbine, the waterwheel, and the discoveries of oxygen, DNA, and Boolean logic, were all inevitable in roughly the period they appeared. However the particular form of the microphone, its exact circuit, or the specific design of the laser, or the particular materials of the transistor, or the dimensions of the steam turbine, or the peculiar notation of the formula, or the specifics of any invention are not inevitable. Rather they will vary quite widely due to the personality of their finder, the resources at hand, the culture of society they are born into, the economics funding the discovery, and the influence of luck and chance.
One of the examples that he discusses in some detail is the discovery of the incandescent light bulb. Edison discovered it, right? Well, not really. Research by Robert Friedel and Paul Israel shows that at least 23 other people made working incandescent bulbs before Edison! Kelly’s conclusion is that the invention of the light bulb looks something like this:
In this view, the thing that Edison did was to both figure out a way to solve the technological problem while also figuring out a way to get his idea to spread. The innovation came in replication part of the process, not simply the variety-generation part.
Malcolm Gladwell reaches similar conclusions – that many new ideas are ‘in the air’, and that they emerge once the right supporting technologies are in place. He discusses numerous examples from the fields of both science and technology:
The statistician Stephen Stigler once wrote an elegant essay about the futility of the practice of eponymy in science—that is, the practice of naming a scientific discovery after its inventor. That’s another idea inappropriately borrowed from the cultural realm. As Stigler pointed out, “It can be found that Laplace employed Fourier Transforms in print before Fourier published on the topic, that Lagrange presented Laplace Transforms before Laplace began his scientific career, that Poisson published the Cauchy distribution in 1824, twenty-nine years before Cauchy touched on it in an incidental manner, and that Bienaymé stated and proved the Chebychev Inequality a decade before and in greater generality than Chebychev’s first work on the topic.” For that matter, the Pythagorean theorem was known before Pythagoras; Gaussian distributions were not discovered by Gauss. The examples were so legion that Stigler declared the existence of Stigler’s Law: “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” There are just too many people with an equal shot at those ideas floating out there in the ether. We think we’re pinning medals on heroes. In fact, we’re pinning tails on donkeys.
I think this raises an extremely important point. To me, it reinforces my belief that idea generation is probably the least important part of the process. If ideas are ‘in the air’, the rewards don’t go to whoever articulates them first – they go to whoever figures out how to get them to spread first. If your organisation is trying to be more innovative, creativity is important, but execution is critical. Focus on getting ideas to spread, rather than on simply having them in the first place.