Is It an Innovation if No One Knows About It?

The first clocks using mechanical movements kept time by regulating a flow of water. For seven hundred years or so, everyone knew that these clocks were invented in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries. No one is quite sure where exactly, as several cities at roughly the same time erected central clock towers. However, in the middle of the 20th century, Joseph Needham came across a diary written by Su Song that documented a clock that he built in China at the end of the 11th century. The diary had been lost for hundreds of years, and even in China it was well known that mechanical clocks were a European invention.

Needham continued to dig, and eventually found records of four different clocks that had been built in China about the same time. Each only worked for a short period of time. All early clocks required a huge amount of maintenance, and it appears as though the makers of these clocks all either died or moved on after they were built. No one else had the knowledge required to keep them running.

So can we say that mechanical clocks are a Chinese innovation?

In one sense, who cares? But in another sense, this illustrates an important point.

Innovation isn’t just about having ideas. It’s not even simply about executing ideas. To innovate, you have to do both of these things. But you also have to get the idea to spread.

Su wrote a book describing the workings of his clock, but the plans were insufficient to build or maintain a working clock. His son believed that he left out crucial details so that his ideas wouldn’t be stolen.

Su had a very successful career and was widely acclaimed in his time, so from a personal standpoint, this may have been a good strategy. On the other hand, he didn’t get full credit for his ideas for 900 years, mainly because he tried to keep them from spreading.

Finding the right balance between rewarding inventors for successfully executing ideas and getting these ideas to diffuse to improve overall economic outcomes is a difficult problem – one that still bedevils discussion of intellectual property today.

To me though, if your ideas don’t spread, then you aren’t innovating.

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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4 thoughts on “Is It an Innovation if No One Knows About It?

  1. That balance between invention and business development is very interesting. Many individuals who are brilliant inventors are hopeless when it comes to selling and diffusing their ideas. It’s clearly a huge reason why Steve Jobs has such fascination to us. The question I have is whether someone / some company has invented a diffusion engine, similar to the ideas/invention engine that 3M created when it gave people 15% of their week available for R&D? I’m not sure how the magic is done at 3M, see this link:

  2. Thanks for the link Andy – definitely useful to get some more insight into 3M – they’ve been very successful at innovation for quite a while now. Their 15% idea (and Google’s 20% rule) are good idea/invention engines. They are pretty good at driving execution too, since you are actually measured on what’s delivered from that time (Atlassian is probably the best in that regard from what I’ve heard).

    But diffusion is a different thing. In some respects, the diffusion engines are marketers, but it’s a bit more than that. Your example of Steve Jobs is relevant – he’s a good example of someone who generates ideas and gets them to diffuse. Two different skill sets though, so you don’t often find them in the same person…

  3. Hi Tim – I agree, it’s not an innovation unless it delivers value. If it’s not used, it isn’t delivering value. That’s why many so-called innovations aren’t, because they’re just different and not better. Of course awareness of an innovation will influence its adoption, but I suspect these days with information so easily available, it’s used as an excuse for a sub-optimal execution.

  4. Thanks Kevin. I think there can still be problems with getting the ideas out, but sub-optimal execution is often the problem too.

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