Searching for the Perfect Innovation

How can we come up with the perfect innovation? One that will last forever, and make us rich, and perfectly solve the problem it was designed for?

The short answer is – we can’t.

Well, it’s not completely impossible, but it’s awfully unlikely. Here’s an example that shows why.

I’m in London for the DRUID (Danish Research Unit on Industrial Dynamics) Summer Conference, which starts tomorrow. Yesterday, Nancy and I went through the new Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum. It is absolutely superb, and the next time you have a chance to see it, you must go.

The main feature in the Centre is the Cocoon – a large, climate-controlled structure that houses all of the Museum’s plant and insect collections. There is a walk down the outside of it with state of the art exhibits, explaining the science that is going on inside, along with numerous windows inside that allow you to watch the Museum’s scientists at work. It’s one of the best natural history exhibitions I’ve ever seen.

One of the stops include a place where you can look through the window at one of the scientists working on preparing plant or insect specimens, and you can also talk to the person while they work. It looks like this:

What jumps out at you from that picture?

The thing that grabbed my attention immediately is the gigantic mechanical plant press. In the middle of this building with perfect climate control, state-of-the-art analytical tools, and incredibly display technology, we have the plant press – a design that has been in use for hundreds of years in the preparation of plant specimens – it was invented not long after Linnaeus invented his taxonomy. Still in use after several hundred years – it’s a perfect innovation!

How many of our great ideas will last that long? Will the iPad last 200 years? No, not even close. Even things that are fairly simple, designs that have been around forever, evolve. But not the plant press – it looks and functions almost exactly as it has since at least the mid-1800s.

What does this tell us?

It reinforces a couple of points that I made earlier this week – first, our innovations don’t have to be perfect, because they are unlikely to last in their current form for long. This is because in most cases, our ideas co-evolve with the people that will use them. As our innovative ideas diffuse, people add to them, subtract from them, modify them and play them. This changes the ideas, and often the end use for our ideas is substantially different from our original intention.

Second, this why we should take a build, launch, tweak approach to our innovations. They will evolve quickly through iteration – improving as they do.

Finally, consider what it takes to have an idea last for hundreds of years. It might mean that it’s a great idea, but usually it means that the environment is incredibly stable. In the case of the plant press, there hasn’t been much innovation in the way that we catalog plant specimens. There have been radical changes in the way that we categorise these specimens, driven by DNA sequencing and other technical advances, but this hasn’t required major changes in the way that we save and display specimens. The job of being a botanist in a museum has changed quite a bit, but this one small part of it hasn’t.

As we come up with innovations within our organisations, it is unlikely that our environments will be as stable as they have been for museum plants. We need to come up with ideas that are adaptable. Version 2.0 will nearly always be better than the original. The lesson is this – don’t search for the perfect innovation. Innovation creates change, which requires further innovation. It is a dynamic process. Don’t expect your innovation to last forever like the plant press. Our innovations are transient – this is another reason why we need to manage knowledge flows, not knowledge stocks – knowledge stocks usually become obsolete.

We don’t need to find perfect ideas – what we really want is to work on finding the best possible process for generating and managing ideas. That is what leads to innovation success.

(the picture from the Darwin Centre Cocoon is from flickr/ulle.b under a Creative Commons License)

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.

3 thoughts on “Searching for the Perfect Innovation

Comments are closed.