Inevitable Innovation

Is innovation something that results from some unpredictable combination of luck and skill and circumstance? Or, is it something that sets its own pace, something that ripens as surely as fruit on a tree?

It can often be the latter. (So you’d better be keeping up!)

Great creative accomplishments can be divided into two broad categories. One category is almost purely serendipity. If Beethoven had never lived, it’s highly unlikely that we would have anything exactly like his 5th Symphony, or that the world would know the art of Picasso without Picasso.

However other creations would almost certainly have been achieved anyway. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz each independently developed calculus. They did it so close in time that historians dispute who achieved it first. Oxygen was discovered some 230 years ago by no less than three researchers almost simultaneously. There are many such examples.

While we credit famous individuals with the invention or discovery of everything from the airplane to the light bulb to the structure of DNA, other inventors and researchers were close behind. Those milestones would almost certainly have been reached anyway—and soon.

Unlike the arts, the pursuit of science and technology is a progression. When certain things become known, it’s just a matter of time—often a short time—before subsequent inventions and discoveries are made. A more contemporary example is Moore’s Law: the prediction that the processing speed of microprocessors would double every 18 months. It’s a pattern that’s held for decades.

Business innovation falls largely into that second category. Once the internet came into existence, attempts to exploit it promptly ballooned (and then deflated). There was a similar burst of innovation with electrical appliances roughly a century earlier. Even less technology-driven innovations like fast food franchises and superstores blossomed from multiple sources at about the same time.

Key insights have an uncanny way of emerging from more than one source simultaneously. (e.g. I doubt that I’m the only one to make this argument.)

What are you doing to make sure you catch the coming wave of innovation in your business? What are your competitors soon going to be doing that you’d better be doing too? Such trends can be extremely difficult to predict but when they hit you have to be ready for them.

You can’t possibly know what new ideas others might come up with—either inside or outside your organization—but you can be a Leibnitz to their Newton. You can foster a culture of innovation that makes your organization as likely as any other to find new efficiencies and spot promising opportunities, or at least be close behind. You can make sure you’re poised to pick the fruit as it ripens.

Doing that involves much more than just keeping your antenna up and reading the trade press. It requires more than having a product development team, or even launching an innovation initiative. It means creating a climate of thoughtful experimentation and questioning throughout your organization. It requires maintaining an environment that welcomes and cultivates fresh ideas—an innovation culture.

In an era of rapid innovation and globalization, a culture of innovation is not some nicety. It’s essential to your competitiveness.

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