What wins in innovation, great ideas or great process?
Ideally, you’ll have both. But I suspect that if it’s either/or, process wins.
There is an interesting example from the world of chess in Michael Nielsen’s fantastic new book Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science. The book discusses how our improved ability to network via the internet is changing the face of science. It’s an interesting book, and also an important one and I recommend it highly.
One of the stories that he tells is of a tournament sponsored by playchess.com in 2005. It allowed humans and computers to enter together as hybrid teams. The expectation going in was that the teams put together by the dominant chess-playing computer of the time, Hydra, would win because no one could beat their computers.
However, the Hydra teams didn’t even make the quarterfinals. The best machines didn’t win. Neither did the best human players – the grandmasters. Here is how Nielsen describes the tournament:
The grandmasters could beat the Hydras because they knew when to rely on their computers, and when to rely on their own judgment. Even more interesting, the winner of the tournament was a team called ZackS that consisted of two low-ranked amateur players, using three off-the-shelf computers, and standard chess-playing software. Not only did they outclass the Hydras, they outclassed the grandmasters with their strong chess-playing computers. The human operators of ZackS demonstrated exquisite skill in using the data-driven intelligence of their computer algorithms to amplify their chess-playing ability. As one of the observers of the tournament, Garry Kasparov, later remarked, “Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.”
It’s an amazing story, and a counterintuitive one. We like to think that genius always wins, but it doesn’t. You need to execute as well.
It’s an important innovation lesson. Here is a quote from le Corbusier that makes the same point:
Genius is personal, decided by fate, but it expresses itself by means of system. There is no work of art without system.
(Photo from flickr/irodman under a Creative Commons License)