Innovation Diffusion Lessons from Edison

How do we win with innovation? I’ve been arguing strongly that one of the key changes in thinking that we have to make is shift from an emphasis on the importance of ideas to one on the importance of execution. In other words, instead of spending so much time trying to have ideas, we’d be better off putting our time and resources into getting our best ideas to spread. Everett Rogers wrote the definitive book on innovation diffusion (unsurprisingly called The Diffusion of Innovations), and here’s what he had to say about the issue:

Many technologists think that advantageous innovations will sell themselves, that the obvious benefits of a new idea will be widely realized by potential adopters, and that the innovation will diffuse rapidly. Unfortunately, this is very seldom the case. Most innovations in fact diffuse at a surprisingly slow rate.

Let’s go back to the innovation metaphors that I was talking about yesterday – light bulbs versus shovels. Edison is famous because he invented the light bulb, right? That’s why we always use the light bulb as the symbol of innovation. One problem: at least 23 other people invented working light bulbs before Edison did. Twentythree!

Why does Edison get credit for the light bulb then? Because he was the first one to build power stations and distribution cables so that everyone could use his light bulb. He did it by paying people to dig up New York to put in the copper wires to carry the electricity from his Pearl Street Power Station.

This story reinforces a few conversations that we’ve been having here recently:

  • Edison’s key innovation was actually in the business model. He built a fundamentally different place for himself in the value network. Instead of waiting for others to build the infrastructure needed to get his idea to spread, his company built what they needed. Edison gets the credit because of the shovel, not the light bulb.
  • Second, to get his idea to spread, Edison had to get people to unconnect (literally) from their existing value network (gas lighting), and get them to reconnect to his new value network (electricity). The gas industry didn’t just sit by and watch the electrical cables get laid – they fought it all the way. The first 23 teams to invent light bulbs didn’t fight this battle – but Edison’s team did. The network that you’re trying to tap into and the strength of connections within it determines how quickly your new idea can spread.
  • Finally, I can’t think of a better illustration of why idea execution is more important than idea generation. If all that matters it the idea, we’d be talking about one of the other 23 teams that invented a working light bulb, not Edison’s.

If that doesn’t convince you of the supremacy of the shovel over the light bulb, I don’t know what will!

(pictures from Global Edison)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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10 thoughts on “Innovation Diffusion Lessons from Edison

  1. Tim, what a great way to demonstrate the greater importance of idea implementation over mere generation than the very example that gets bandied about concerning the importance of creating ideas.

    Certainly, the process of innovation requires as a first step the creation of an idea, but the only way to properly evaluate the idea is to actually take it out onto the streets for a test run, to see if it has merit and what unforeseen obstacles might be in the way in making it viable.

    Thanks for sharing this look at how Edison really became associated with the creation of the light bulb.

  2. Building the infrastructure is a huge part – which was, in his case, big capital expenditures…but it was distribution infrastructure that limited his other invention (DC) in the end, losing out to AC (westinghouse & tesla). Just goes to show you win some and lose some — and Edison’s quotes on success & failure:

    I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

    Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

  3. Tanveer – I agree that good innovation still start with an idea. I just think we overemphasise ideas, and that that is a mistake. That’s why I keep hammering on execution. But it’s not either/or, it’s definitely both/and!

    Thanks for the comment Deborah – I use that exact quote from Edison in my classes!

    Also, thanks to both of you for retweeting this post – I appreciate it.

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