March 11, 2013 by Liberty
The key to innovation has nothing to do with the things that people normally associate it to. Innovation is an art that’s not typically seen or noticed in a normal situation. In fact, when innovation is noticed before it’s created results, it’s often viewed as a little bit stupid. When a fortune 500 company asks for innovation, what they normally want isn’t really innovation. What they want is complex applications of information that’s already out there.
The Typical View On Innovation
People have a number of stereotypes about innovation that need to be debunked before going any further.
Many people look think about academics as potential innovators. Not all are considered innovators but the ones that come up with complex theories that don’t actually make sense to people with a general grip on reality are thought to be innovative. While these ideas are sometimes absurdly smart (even if completely useless), they are usually not innovation. Theories are usually only developed based on practical application of things that already exist. An example of this might be, a scientist won’t be able to come up with a theory on why electricity works without first knowing electricity works. Most theories are actually just explanations of innovations after they’ve already been innovated.
The next view of innovation is not quite as far from the truth. People often picture teams of engineers and super genius’ coming up with a plan piece by piece for something unbelievably complex and totally awesome and practical. The only mistake in this belief is that innovation comes from the team. While two people can have to separate innovations, multiple people can’t get one innovation and innovation is significantly more rare than you think. Most of what these think tanks do is application of previous innovation. That is, to some extent, innovation but it’s certainly not how people come up with anything particularly important.
Occasionally, people will also think about the whacko obsessive inventor type innovator. That view holds a lot of truth. More than most people like to admit. There are some mistakes about the way that we perceive them though.
We have a tendency to only treat the successful ones like they’re intelligent and valuable. That’s because we make the assumption that the successful inventors must have known something to become that successful. We also make the opposite assumption that the ones that are unsuccessful are somehow less capable. The truth is, the whole system of winners and losers is necessary for innovations. We cannot predict the successes. Success and failure can occur from plain old dumb luck. That means that the whole system including the failure is necessary for the innovation to occur.
Failure, Stupidity, Innovation
The key to innovation is not all that complicated to understand. Innovation is something that is currently outside the realm of possibility. It’s composed of bits of knowledge that we’re not quite privileged to (or doesn’t exist at all.) The closer that innovation is to the realm of possibility, the more of the innovation that we already know. That means closer innovations are “less innovative.”
You might consider something like rolling luggage to be right on the outside of the realm of possibility a few decades ago. We had all of the knowledge to do it except that we should do it.
To see the opposite you might consider the first self-propelled aircraft. Imagine that you’re the neighbor to a couple of bike building brothers that occasionally go out into fields with crazy contraptions saying that they’re trying to fly when no one had ever flown that way before. In fact, their crazy contraptions don’t even have flapping wings. The vast majority of people would consider the two brothers to be complete idiots. That’s because that some innovation is a little bit further from the realm of possibility.
When Innovation Occurs
After a major innovation occurs it opens the door for significantly more innovation. This first few thousand years no one ever created a self propelled flying machine. After the first one was created, within hundreds of years, we created space crafts, jet engines, helicopters, and more. The innovation of self propelled flying machine opened up the doors to more unbelievable concepts of innovation. Without that first discovery, the following discoveries would have never been made. Those doors were opened by such a far out innovation. It creates a vacuum of knowledge based on the fact that no one really understands everything. When people know it’s possible the research increases and more innovation in that area occurs.
Rolling luggage on the other hand… While it may have led to a few more wheels going in convenient places, it definitely doesn’t create a vacuum of knowledge. No one has been prompted into studying the magic of wheels on stuff.
The suggestion I’m trying to make here is that the more far out the innovation, the more valuable it is for the system as a whole (not necessarily for the individual doing it.)
That’s a major problem in most business environments. When they talk about innovation, they’re looking for rolling luggage innovation but there is only so much innovation right outside of our realm of understanding. There is unlimited innovation when you let the leash out a bit but as soon as the person suggesting something says something off the wall, they get laughed out of the room. People say, “That won’t work. No one has ever done that before.” That is where innovation gets flushed down the toilet. Every other person in the room will think twice before saying anything that they don’t have all the answers available. If they have all of the answers for it then it’s not going to be innovation anyway.
Should We Reward Idiocy?
This description of innovation might make it seem like idiots are one of the most valuable resources we have. In fact, I might be fine with that statement. People that are willing to do things that I perceive as stupid, are going to end up with results that I would have never been able to get (because I wouldn’t have even tried it.)
“Idiots” innovate less often but their innovation is of a significantly greater impact on the world. That means that the majority of idiots die as idiots. Their family’s will always think that they were just the crazy uncle or the brother that never made anything of himself. We look down on these men and women, but without them, we wouldn’t be half as far as we are technologically. In fact, that’s giving bureaucratic innovation more credit than it deserves. There are virtually no great innovations in bureaucracies (except the occasional killing machine.)
The truth is, some idiots are just idiots. Some people that head out to create the flying machine, really don’t know jack about how to make it work. Some of them are completely insane but to the outside observer, we have limited discernible ways to tell the difference. Someone could talk great but not know a thing. Many people know more than anyone else but aren’t expert communicators.
How We Can Tell?
For the most part we don’t try to tell the difference. The key to innovation is to provide the freedom for people to innovate themselves. Then the key is to let the successful innovators reap the rewards (rolling luggage millionaires) and to let the failures suffer the consequences (thank them for their dedication at some point to be nice.) When we try to distinguish between the two we become susceptible to the same diseases that plague their attempts at innovation. We just don’t have the information to know.
This “leave them alone” mentality is essential to maintaining the balance between the different levels of innovation. No one wants to live a life in obscurity. That means that everyone will be aiming to do something that is actually possible within their lifetime. That means that more people will be focusing on rolling luggage but the ones that are most likely to succeed at the farther out innovations are the same ones that will be attempting it.
The key to innovation is not tight restrictions on what’s possible. The key to innovation is freedom.
Bonus: Shooting for the moon
One of the unsung heroes of innovation is serendipitous discovery. When someone is trying to invent rolling luggage, they don’t accidentally invent a luggage catapult. The innovator can hone in on that single aspect of their goal. When someone is trying to innovate flying shoes, it’s not so unbelievable that someone could invent gliding shoes or the greatest basketball shoes ever, or ceiling walking shoes. The fact that the innovation is so far out of the realm of possibility makes it more possible to stumble on something else that could be valuable.
You’ve probably heard the story of the sticky note papers. The inventor was aiming to make a glue that lasted forever. He farted away at that and discovered a glue that barely sticks at all. That serendipitous discovery proved to be valuable. The simple explanation, when you’re shooting for the moon, you might just land among the stars.
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