Apr 3, 2011

Thoughts on Innovation

I've been thinking a lot about innovation lately, especially as it relates to education, and perhaps more importantly how the crushing force of hype often stifles it. Corporation X comes out with innovative product Y, sells that product to the world as the future, convinces a few naive but influential writers/bloggers/reporters with a tendency towards utopianism to write/speak favorably about it, and suddenly the world believes that this one thing is the only path to world peace, an end to hunger, and happiness for all. This then leads to the belief among educators that if we can just get product Y into our classrooms, knowledge will flourish and all of our problems will be solved. Of course, there is no depth to these assertions, which are based entirely on assumptions driven by a shallow view of education as a series of activities, rather than an environment or ecosystem for learning.

The unfortunate consequence of all of this for those who would be so bold as to try something that runs contradictory to these trends - dare I say those who would be innovative - is that their ideas must undoubtedly bear the full weight of this hype-wave and the criticism of its apostles. For those brave souls, I offer these thoughts; this encouragement to stick to your guns and pursue what, if you have thoughtfully considered your idea, you know to be true:

1. Innovators put little stock in criticism from the mainstream

It is important to remember that a true innovation is both revolutionary and transformative, and requires a perspective that is likely to be outside that of the mainstream. It tends to challenge the understanding and habits of others, which inevitably leads to broad criticism. Consider the following comments from a wide variety of journalists, pundits, and other self-proclaimed "experts":
What's remarkable about these is not that they are profoundly negative - we've all seen comments like them before. What's remarkable is that they are referring to the original iPod, a product and business model that is nearly ubiquitous today. Obviously, the pundits got that one completely wrong, because they lacked both a clear understanding and perspective of the implications of such a move by Apple. They viewed the iPod as it related to their current conditions and habits, from a shallow, evolutionary perspective of "how can I use this to do what I already do better". As such, they simply couldn't see the deeper, radical transformation that Apple and the iPod were about to bring to the music industry and the purchasing/listening habits of the buying public.

The long and the short of it is this: if you are trying to reform something - ie take what you already have and make it better - then you listen to everybody. They know how they use/do what you are trying to improve and are the best resource for knowledge and ideas around building incremental gains. If, however, you are trying to do something truly innovative, then you don't (listen). If your idea is truly innovative, you'll know it by the number of critics you have. If everyone agrees with you, then your idea probably isn't innovative or transformative.

2. Innovators see opportunities in both the "old" and the "new"

A funny thing about innovation is that quite often it can be found in something that was, for all intents and purposes, "ahead of its time." For example, I think it's safe to assert that Web 2.0 and all it's related technologies are both an immense source of innovation and transformation in society today. And, as every Web 2.0 programmer knows (and most who are "in the know" recognize), the foundation of all this innovation is the javascript programming language. But the funny thing about javascript is that it's not at all new. Javascript has been a part of web browsers since the days of Netscape, and is over 16 years old (an eternity in time for any technology). It didn't reach it's true potential until a number of other technologies, such as CSS and HTML5, came into existence.
Innovators are often criticized for rethinking the use of something "old", be it an idea or a physical thing, in a new and innovative way. It is argued that the idea clearly can't be innovative because they are not using the latest "bright, shiny object" that is garnering the most attention. Innovators recognize that "new" doesn't always equal "better", and that sometimes even the oldest ingredients can be combined to make something so impactful that it inspires a generation.

3. Innovators embrace resource constraints

Throughout history, resource constraints have been some of the greatest drivers of invention and innovation. A lack of resources - be they financial, material, technological, or otherwise - forces us to think differently about solving problems, and has a tendency to lead to breakthroughs with broad sweeping social impact. Take, for example, the development of the jet engine.

In the beginning of the cold war era after World War II there was a race to secure air superiority, with both the allies and the Soviet Union working to develop a reliable jet-turbine engine. The problem with jet engines was this: in order to make them go faster, you had to pump in more fuel and air. When you burn more fuel, you increase heat, which causes the parts to get hotter, and eventually leads to material fatigue and engine failure. At the time, several American teams under General Electric were competing against several German teams under BMW to find a solution to the perplexing problem. The key difference was that the American team had virtually endless resources to test whatever materials they could find/develop, while the Germans had very little, and were forced to work with the materials they had on hand. As it turns out, the German team won by proposing a status quo shattering idea of hollowing out rotor blades and other highly heat exposed parts, allowing air to flow through them and enabling them to cool naturally - a breakthrough that is still in use today.

Resource constraints can arguably be the greatest drivers of innovation, because they force us to look beyond the status quo for new ways to solve problems. Innovators see them not as a limitation, but as an opportunity to re-think, re-imagine, and invent. They wallow not in "if only we had" but instead seek out and discover new opportunities for inventiveness and innovation.

4. Innovators jump curves

History reveals another lesson about innovation, and that is that innovators "jump curves." By "curves" I am referring to trend-lines or natural trajectories of evolutionary growth. A famous example of this is the story of ice delivery in America. Around the turn of the 20th century, ice for Americans was largely produced by ice farmers in the far northern reaches and shipped via boat down rivers throughout the states. This was a tedious, labor-intensive process that was not terribly efficient, with limited reach and little impact on society as a whole.

Within a few decades, ice farms gave way to ice factories, which were able to produce ice far closer to their destination at significantly reduced cost. The ice was largely delivered by horse and wagon, as you can see below.

Of course, within a short time, refrigerators were invented, and no one needed the ice factories any more, because they could produce it in their homes using these new fangled, personal "chillers", like this Oldman model.

The interesting thing about this story is not the evolution and development of refrigeration, although that certainly can be viewed as one of the most significant developments in human history. The important detail is that, as far as one can tell from the history books, none of the ice farmers ever started ice factories, and none of the ice factories ever developed refrigerators. Ice farmers looked for sharper blades and more efficient methods for harvesting ice. Ice factories looked for better ways to store and more efficient ways to deliver. Both were so focused on finding better ways to do what they already knew how to do better, that they "reformed" themselves into oblivion.

Innovators jump curves and challenge the status quo. They aren't afraid to try something new, even if it runs counter to what they already "know".

5. Innovators don't pretend to know the outcome

Too often, innovative ideas are ruined by what I call "systemization", or a presupposed methodology combined with a rigid requirement for adherence to a predetermined usage pattern (now that's a mouthful). Case in point: Friendster.

In the early oughts, before MySpace and Facebook, a group out of Northern California designed a social site called "Friendster", designed to be a safe environment for meeting new people online. Within a few short months of its launch, Friendster was fast on its way to becoming the biggest site on the internet, with staggering growth and social acceptance. Social memes began to take shape all around the world as new norms developed, such as referring to online friends as "friendsters". The future certainly looked bright for this little startup out of Mountain View.

The creativity of its users knew no bounds as members began creating profiles that no longer represented single individuals, as Friendster's founders intended, but instead for bands, groups, fictional characters, and the like. Stories began to emerge of famous profiles like "Salt" and "Pepper", who would write long, humorous love notes to each other about how they "so hated to be apart" and "longed to be together again." Groups would use Friendster to communicate with each other and bands would reach out to their fans.

Rather than embracing their users' creativity, the people behind Friendster decided that this represented "inappropriate usage", and systematically deleted any accounts that didn't fit their predetermined usage pattern. Naturally, this frustrated their users, which would be courted by a fledgling startup, MySpace, who was all too willing to accept them. MySpace went on to become a cultural phenomenon, while Friendster all but disappeared from cultural consciousness in the United States.

Rigid standards, restrictions, usage requirements, and assumptions lead to one thing: the death of innovation. Innovators' ideas are implemented to be as open as possible, and innovators are willing to step back, and let 1000 flowers bloom. Often, their inventions look quite different than they did at origination, but that's OK, because they are having a lasting impact.

6. Innovators aren't afraid of failure, and are quick to let go

The most important trait of an innovator is that they are not afraid of failure. They are not reckless, by any means, but are also not so wed to an idea that they will do everything in their power to force its success. Too often, wannabe innovators will be so convinced that they are right that when the idea proves bad, they buck and fight and strive to keep it alive. There is seemingly no end to the number of hoops they will jump through until their idea is so disapproved that they have expended all of their social capital and significantly reduced the chances that their next idea will be met with acceptance.

Innovators recognize that not every idea will be a success, and are quick to discard and move away from those that are not. As Walt Disney famously stated:

We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

Innovators keep moving forward, pressing toward new ideas, with the hope of making this world a better place.

Photo credits:
Jet engine: Public Domain - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BMW_003_jet_engine.JPG
Ice Farmers: Library of Congress - http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91787147/
Ice Factory Worker: Public Domain - http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001022945/PP/
Ice Delivery Cart: Public Domain - http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997023940/PP/
Oldman Refrigerator: CC BY-SA - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Monitor_refer.jpg


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  1. Takes one to know one...Great post, Jim!

  2. I saw a new campus being built when I was a teenager and asked my dad why there were no sidewalks yet. He explained to me that there are many companies that can design great buildings for the campus but only a rare few who are wise enough to let the students show them the best path to take from point a to b. Sure enough, a year later using most of the paths worn into the grass by the students, concrete sidewalks had been placed.

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