The Worst Innovation Quote Ever


Here’s my candidate for the worst innovation quote ever:

Now, to be fair, it’s actually a paraphrasing of Emerson. Or, to be more accurate, a misquote.

Nevertheless, it reflects a very common innovation misconception – that it’s all about the idea.

Andrew Hargadon has written a terrific post on this topic, which I encourage you to read. In it, he points out that since the U.S. Patent Office was founded in 1828, there have been more than 4,400 patents granted for mousetraps, with about 40 per year still being granted. Yet out of all of these, only a handful have made money.

Why? Because for the most part, the mousetrap problem was solved in 1894.

The mousetrap story has several important implications:

  • There’s much more to innovation than ideas. Hargadon explains why continually trying to fix a solved problem is a problem itself:

    Recall Emerson’s famous line: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” People are obsessed with building better mousetraps. For scientists, this creates a mindset in which the hard work lies in coming up with the idea—usually culminating in publishing a paper. For the engineer, this usually means developing a design, or a model. For the would-be entrepreneur, or corporate innovator, this usually means an extensive excel spreadsheet or polished powerpoint description of the next great idea. And for managers managing for “innovation,” to revive or maintain their business’s growth, this usually means searching for better ideas from inside the company, from among its customers, or from the larger “idea” marketplace.

    If I have learned anything while traveling the country, talking to people in companies about their innovation process, and working with scientists from around the globe, it is this: There is no shortage of good ideas. We are waist-deep in ideas, good and bad. We’ve just lost the ability to recognize them, separate the good from the bad, and throw ourselves into building the best ones into real businesses.

  • Innovation is the process of idea management. It follows from this that to innovate, we actually have to manage ideas all the way through the process. It’s not enough to have a great idea, and it’s not even enough to execute a great idea. You also have to get the idea to spread. All of these skills are necessary to innovate successfully.
  • To get your ideas to spread, solve real problems. Here’s the real issue with the Emerson quote – it doesn’t focus on needs. Like I said, the mousetrap problem was basically solved in 1894. Ruth Kessinger calls the mousetrap the “most frequently invented device in U.S. history,” and some of the more recently invented ones are undoubtedly better than the snap trap design.

    Just not better enough to make switching worthwhile. In an established market, you usually need a 10X performance improvement to displace an established competitor. It’s pretty hard to get that in mousetraps.

In some respects, mousetrap manufacturers had it easy, because they were replacing competitors that couldn’t really fight for market share:

Of course, cats made a pretty good pivot

The bottom line here is that if you place too much value on ideas, you won’t be an effective innovator. It’s better to focus on solving a well-defined need. Alex Osterwalder lays out a good process for doing this in an excellent post today, which provides a method for effectively matching your value proposition to customer needs.

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 “The Worst Innovation Quote Ever

  1. Great article and great points. Originally, I thought to myself, Emerson died before the “solved problem” was solved, In context, it probably was a great quote. However, now being used as a quote for innovation, the point is well taken. “Timing is everything”. While the original quote was likely metaphorical, or based on a mouse infested world, without knowing the context, trying to fix problems that already have great solutions is not time well spent. Much like the quote “Perfect is the enemy of done – or complete.” To Emerson’s credit, with 4,400 patents, he certainly got the idea to spread.

    • Thanks for the comment Michael. The weird thing about the Emerson quote is that in the original version, he didn’t mention mousetraps at all. He talked about finding better ways to harvest wheat and things that were more relevant at the time.

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