Discovering Gold through Innovation

One of the weird trends in spam comments now is that through services like mechanical turk people are getting paid to make marginally relevant comments that link back to some spammy site. This makes getting rid of spam a lot harder. However, while I was running through a recent batch, I ran across a comment that got me thinking (I still trashed it though). It was: “I agree. Ideas really are like commodities now.”

That wasn’t quite the point of the original post, but if you’re getting paid a dime per comment, I guess you don’t put too much thought into it.

But it got me thinking about how I believe that ideas are almost always mischaracterized. At one extreme, people think of ideas like the spammer did – as commodities. At the other, they think of them as a highly-desirable end product. Both views are mistaken. If you think of ideas as commodities, you won’t invest enough in getting better ideas. But if you view them as the end product, then you make the mistake of believing that innovation is all about ideas.

The mistake that both views make is to view ideas as an end product of innovation, rather than as an input. Here’s a better way to think about ideas:

Ideas are potential.

Instead of thinking of ideas as gold (or a commodity), think of ideas as a mining claim.

Innovation is a process. If you have a bunch of ideas and think you’re innovating, it is just like holding a mining claim and thinking you’re rich. The value isn’t in the idea – it is in the execution.

The mining claim is like an innovative idea – it is potential. In order to get rich, you want to have the best possible claims, and the best possible ideas. Both are necessary first steps. But there is still a lot of work to do.

An important part of innovating is figuring out which ideas to try out. You can do this through reasoning out which ones are best, or you can experiment to see which ones work. In the same way, on the minesite you have to figure out the best places to dig for gold. Unfortunately, gold isn’t distributed evenly throughout an area. You can find the best spots just through logic, but often your best bet is to experiment (guided by logic). In both cases, we need a good selection process.

Once we’ve done our selecting, then we need to execute. With ideas, we have to figure out how to make the ones we’ve selected work. We have to figure out how the idea fits in to the network of the economy, and we have to get the idea to spread. Being great at execution can make up for not being as good at generating ideas. If you can’t execute, it doesn’t matter how great your ideas are.

It’s the same with gold. Once you find the place to look, you need a good method for getting it out of the ground. And again, being great at execution can make up for not being as good at finding the best spots.

In mining, to get a lot of gold you have to stake a claim, you have to find the best places look within your stake, and you have to get the gold out of the ground. It’s a process. The mining claim doesn’t make you rich, it just makes you potentially rich. To actually get rich, you have to be good at the entire process.

It’s the same with innovation. You have to be able to generate great ideas, you have be able to select the best ones and then execute them, and you have to get the ideas to spread. The ideas don’t make you innovative, they just make you potentially innovative. To actually innovate, you have to be good at the entire process.

(Mining claim photo from flickr/SkyTruth, gold panning and gold flake photos from flickr/VisitSweden, all under Creative Commons Licenses)

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 “Discovering Gold through Innovation

  1. I know lots of people (including myself!) who come up with an idea, are excited by it, talk about it, imagine it having been put in place and… those things give your brain enough of the ‘reward’ it seeks that doing all the hard work of implementation would not be ‘efficient’, since it would only be making you a little bit happier in your brain (albeit potentially MUCH wealthier?!).
    Talk is cheap, as they say, and at this point I’m gonna quote a US president – “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”
    Coolidge, according to the Internets.
    (“The problem with quotes on the Internet is you can never be sure if they’re accurate.” Abraham Lincoln).

  2. I’m often the same way Dwight – and actually, that attitude is very common in academia too. In universities, it’s great to have the ideas, but executing them means that you have to write, and then get through peer review. That part of the process seems to put off a few people…

  3. Great analogy!

    It reminds me than when working with big companies, a Master Service Agreement is a “license to hunt,” not a sale. The sale comes later (or not), after lots of execution.

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