Innovation: The War of Ideas

Innovations are ideas. Even if your innovation is a new gizmo, it is essentially an idea. Once you have a great idea (by making a new connection), you have to figure out how to get it to work, and once you’ve done that, you have to figure out how to get the idea to spread. The last part is often the tough part. Consider what Machievelli had to say about it about 500 years ago in The Prince:

There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order of things… Whenever his enemies have the ability to attack the innovator, they do with the passion of partisans, while the others defend him sluggishly, so that the innovator and his party alike are vulnerable.

Machievelli was talking about innovative political ideas, which is why he refers to “the innovator and his party”, but the same idea holds in economic innovation. Innovation is tough – and new ideas get attacked. This leads to a common mistake that smart people make – they often think that a great new idea will sell itself. In the fantastic new book Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society edited by Bill Bryson, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein shows that even Galileo made this mistake:

Galileo, for his part, could be high-handed in regard to experimentation, writing, for example that it was only the need to convince his ignorant opponents that made him resort to ‘a variety of experiments, though, to satisfy his own mind alone he had never felt it necessary to make any’. As [historian of science E.A. Burtt] has written, ‘If this was seriously meant, it was extremely important for the advance of science that Galileo had strong opponents…’

In this case, experiments were critically important because those are what demonstrate that Galileo’s theories were right – that they worked when you applied them out in the world. It’s the same with innovation – we need to show that our ideas work. And then we need to get them to spread, which usually means defeating the opponents of our ideas.

Machievelli’s enemies are Galileo’s opponents. Whenever we come up with great ideas of our own, we have enemies and opponents too. One way or another, our innovative ideas have to displace ideas that are already out there, to which people often have strong attachments. To get our ideas to spread, we have to break these attachments.

This is a large part of why business model innovation is so attractive. When we innovate our business models, we are creating new space, where the competing ideas aren’t as strongly embedded. The drawback to this is that it is harder to prove to people that the ideas work, because there are fewer references points. The advantage is that there are also fewer pre-existing connections that have to be broken.

Getting ideas to spread is challenging. It’s a mistake to think like Galileo and to believe that it’s simply enough to have the great ideas in the first place. We have to show that they work, and then we have to enter the battle that Machievelli describes. This is often hard, because many innovators are ideas people. But it’s much more satisfying to see our ideas adopted. So don’t just have the great ideas, show that they work, and get them to spread.

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

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

5 thoughts on “Innovation: The War of Ideas

  1. Great post and very thoughtful since almost nothing is new, we only change some words and presentations but the content is the same.

Comments are closed.