How innovation really happens


one device

Entrepreneurs and the entire entrepreneurial biosphere is obsessed with one word: innovation. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the word is getting to be one of the most overused words in the English language,  viz my Google search results just now: About 691,000,000 results (0.87 seconds).

But the reality is that if your startup is not either making changes to something established, like Uber has done with taxi service, or introducing something brand new like Twitter’s micro-blogging platform, your startup is just a “me-too” venture unlikely to acquire customers, partners or investors.

But there’s a common myth you need to be aware of which is addressed in the Inc. article by Greg Satell entitled The One Thing Nobody Ever Tells You About Innovation. Here’s his conclusion is a nutshell:

So innovation is never a single event, but usually takes about thirty years to move from discovery to engineering to transformation. That’s just a rule of thumb, sometimes it can be longer or shorter, but we’re talking decades, not months or years.

As Greg writes, innovation at its core is about combination. Steve Jobs and the iPhone is a perfect example. If you read any of the books about the genesis of the iPhone it’s plain that Jobs genius lay not in inventing something new no one had ever seen or thought of, but in combining existing technology: radios, modems, the touch screen interface, and a smaller version of Mac OS into a new and brilliant form factor and UX (user experience). Brian Merchant’s book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone is fascinating reading and is a great case study of how innovation takes both time and context to actually sprout and grow. 

My key takeaways from both the Inc. article and Brian Merchant’s book are that there are several factors common to breakthrough innovations:

  • They are usually based on ideas that have been gestating for years in academic or corporate labs, and may take up to 30 years to gain massive popularity. The WIMP interface (Window, Icons, Menu, Pointer) that gestated at first Xerox Labs, then Apple,  and it finally made it big with Microsoft Windows 3.0.
  • Innovators are by their nature highly curious. This curiosity translates into constantly searching and exploring takes you into unfamiliar places where your knowledge and experience provide little guidance. That can be uncomfortable, but it is also absolutely essential to coming up with profoundly new ideas.
  • Being comfortable with uncertainty. If you want certainty go join an established corporation or work for the government.  Entrepreneurs have to thrive under circumstances where they have imperfect knowledge, but enough to plow ahead anyway.
  • Comfort with failure. Because entrepreneurship is based on the scientific method some of your hypotheses will be wrong. That not failure, it’s just learning. And likely a stepping stone to success. One comment that struck me hard was Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that at any one time there are roughly 10,000 versions of Facebook running! Why, because they are always experimenting, gathering data, analyzing that data and then useful changes can be made to the Facebook billions use, based successful experiments.
  • Seek out new ways to combine, merge, mix and incorporate the existing with a smidgen of the new. eBay took a centuries old business practice, the auction, and by putting it online and enabling both buyers and sellers to build their reputations and otherwise do business quickly, conveniently and safely, created a billion dollar business.
  • Being observant of yourself and others. Many great inventions, like VisiCalc, where based on solving an individual’s problem. So monitor your own behavior and find your own pain points. If enough other people share that same pain point, such as how to keep their electric toothbrush charged, your introduction of an induction charging station may be a big hit. But also observe and monitor other people and other businesses. Where do they get stuck? Get frustrated? Irritated? Attempt kludgy work arounds? Give up? Being an entrepreneur is being a social anthropologist. But instead of writing academic papers you may be creating a new product or service and filing for a patent instead of submitting a paper to a journal.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. There are a plethora of entrepreneurial meet ups, networking events, seminars, workshops and the like. You are very likely to see the same entrepreneurs, VCs, professional service providers, et al there. Try taking a factory tour or watching what happens on a construction site. It’s rarely the incumbents who invent the future, as they are too busy looking in the rear view mirror and protecting the present. By going to places you’ve never been before, like the Fuller Craft Museum you’ll expose yourself to products new and old and people, like docents or curators you would never meet at a typical founders’ event.

Finally, be open. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open to what’s around you. Many successful song writers keep a notebook where they jot down some lyrics which may not emerge into a hit song for years. You can do something similar with the problems and issues you observe that may eventually percolate into a new product or service.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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