Author: Adam Norris & Paul Smargiassi Date Posted:18 November 2016
"Innovation is the process by which we change the world." Carl Bass, CEO Autodesk
What exactly is innovation and why do so many people strive to be associated with it? What is it that makes people and nations desire so strongly to be seen above all else as innovators? Why is it that we celebrate those who are known to have mastered it and seek it out for ourselves at every turn, trying to capture it as if it were a commodity more precious than gold?
The answer is perhaps more simple and more dignified than we might first imagine. We perhaps seek to innovate because it is through this process we expand the possibility of ourselves and if we do it well, we change not only the way in which we live, but we also potentially change the world around us.
Whether we like to believe it or not, innovation can be seen as our ambition in its most altruistic form.
Jumping the Curve
Guy Kawaski in his TEDxBerkeley talk from 2014 tells the story of the American ice trade and how a failure to innovate, or jump to the next curve, led to the death of each underdeveloped practice, as ideas from outside, changed the industry over and over again.
Ice 1.0 - In the 19th century ice was harvested much in the same way as timber. It was cut by hand in the cold climate regions of North America and transported by horse, wagon and rail throughout the country. Innovation for those working along this curve would be a sharper saw, faster horses and stronger wagons. Very few people working on this curve saw the innovation which would essentially destroy their livelihood.
Centralised ice factories began to pop up in the major ice consuming cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, whose hot gruelling summers gave their respective citizens and businesses insatiable appetites for vast quantities of ice. An ice factory, compared to an ice harvesting operation, could produce a year round product regardless of climate, time of year or seasonal anomalies.
Chicago’s consumption alone of factory produced ice allowed its slaughter houses to grow their production exponentially as they were now able to sell their beef to overseas markets as far away as Britain. They also had the additional benefit of sourcing the product locally from a manufacturer which meant they were no longer at the mercy of ice famines which could be brought on by unusually hot summers or a supply vacuum like the one endured during World War One where most of the Ice was bought up by the U.S. government.
Now with centralised plants operating far from the ice fields of New England and Alaska, individuals and industry could now source their ice locally, regularly and reliably. Again innovation within Ice 2.0 were faster production lines, quicker delivery vans to homes and more efficient machinery within the factory. Very few people working on this curve made the jump to Ice 3.0.
The next innovation was of course the refrigerator. A machine which allowed each individual home to have its own miniature ice production plant, which put an end to the individual consumer ice market just as the ice factory had brought the practice of ice harvesting to its knees.
So how can a business striving to innovate, jump these curves rather than simply improve on the current model? How could the manufacturer of the pencil foresee the advent of the pen, the telephonist anticipate the internet, the driver of the horse and cart imagine the possibility of the motorcar. The answer again is perhaps more obvious than imagined. The innovator must look at what he provides rather than what he produces.
The innovator must look at what he provides rather than what he produces.
If we take for example a designer producing table cloths for family homes and look at what they produce and compare that to what they actually provide, this point becomes clear.
The designer is not simply constructing patterns and cutting out fabric in particular shapes in order to protect tables from spillage at dinnertime. That is definitely what they do, but it is a far cry from what they provide. What they actually provide is a significant contribution to the tone and atmosphere of a family’s lifestyle by setting the aesthetic mood for each shared household meal.
The tablecloth and the ritual of table setting that accompanies it, adds to the sense of home for the family that uses it and in its subtle way contributes to the shared memory of a family unit. The simple piece of fabric with its chosen pattern provides far more than its practical functionality.
Likewise the martial arts instructor does not simply teach a student how to kick and punch and follow rules and patterns set out within each session in the Dojo. This is what he does but it is not what he provides. What he provides is a means by which each student comes to realise his or her own true potential, imparting confidence and self knowledge through trial and stress and exertion.
When the designer or the martial artist attempt to innovate their practices it would give both a significant advantage over their respective competitors, if they attempted to improve their practices with the concept of what they provide in mind, rather than simply ameliorate the processes of what they do.
A modern example of this is Air BnB who have more beds available in more countries around the world than Hilton, Sheraton and The Holiday Inn combined. They did this not by making the building of hotels, motels and high-rises more efficient but by utilising the millions of empty beds that lay dormant around the world each night, wasting the potential to offer the same service that Hilton, Sheraton and The Holiday Inn provide, namely a safe, clean and comfortable bed for people who find themselves far from home.
When a true innovation breaks through, like an AirBnB or an Uber, it makes the previous way of doing things look foolish. It makes a connection (which in hindsight seems so obvious) between a need, and a product or service to meet that need, with minimal effort. And in the case of Uber and AirBnB, these innovations have literally changed the lives of people all over the world.
How to Create a Culture of Innovation
How then can we transform our own businesses, our own households and our inner selves to lean more towards innovation rather than simply improve upon the systems already in place? Is it possible for us to transform the desire to innovate, into a discipline of innovation and by doing so, unlock and harness the enormous potential that lies within each of us.
“Make meaning, not money.” Guy Kawasaki, Google, Macintosh
I believe the answer is an overwhelming yes and in order to live innovative lives and lead innovative businesses, we must first alter or improve the way we think. We must constantly ask ourselves what it is we are striving towards at any given moment. What is it I am essentially attempting to provide right now? What is the purpose behind the purpose?
In other words what is the rationale behind what I am trying to achieve and is there a better, more efficient, more profitable way I can go about doing so.
Innovation then becomes more than problem solving, it becomes a critical analysis on our lives and asks us to live and think holistically, critically and creatively.
The Woodcutter and the Frozen Tree
A fabled example of this way of approaching the world through innovative thinking is perhaps best illustrated with the story of the woodcutter and the frozen tree. The woodcutter is sent out to gather wood to keep his family warm during the harsh winter and dutifully he makes his way through the dark forest looking for a tree which suits his needs.
Picking out a fine specimen he takes his axe to it but the tree is frozen and he has difficulty bringing it down. He moves to another tree, this time a smaller one and tries again but again the timber is too solid. He repeats this over and over, choosing ever smaller trees, but he is unable to fell any of them.
After hours in the forest alone, he stands in the dark, cold and miserable, and thinks to himself he has failed his family. He resolves to go back to the first tree and hang himself from its tallest limb. The story, as so many fables are, is a sad one.
But of course the woodcutter has only failed his family if the tree and his failure to cut it down, is seen in isolation. His purpose was not actually to cut down the tree at all, but rather to gather fuel to keep himself and his family warm. More to the point his true purpose was not even to gather fuel, his true purpose was to provide warmth for his family, the tree being only one possible solution to that particular problem.
The woodcutter, unable to harvest the frozen timber, could have if fact returned home empty handed and instructed his family to simply put on more clothes or perhaps instruct them to huddle together for the night in order to keep each other warm. Or the woodcutter, if he was feeling especially creative, could order his family to pack their belongings and leave at first light in order to search for warmer climates or at the very least some softer trees.
The innovator is not satisfied with persisting along the same reliable and proven paths of his peers, but rather he seeks to make connections between the paths he is already on, those which have come before and those he hopes to cultivate in the future.
Innovation is not meeting the needs of today but rather it is anticipating and developing systems, processes and products which will shape the desires of tomorrow. Innovators do not simply improve upon the current model, rather they attempt to better meet the needs the current model is trying to satisfy. In other words they do not want to continue up the same mountain if changing to a better one will take them higher.
Three of the Greatest Innovations in History
The Legal System (1780 BCE)
Those men and women in wigs and robes lurking about the courthouse didn’t just spring out of the earth. They can be thankful to Hammurabi, the Sixth King of Babylon, who was for the most part a peaceful keeper of the Babylonian people who kept the First Dynasty on track for forty odd years. Hammurabi wrote one of the first formalised codes of law and had all of his 282 decrees on public display written in the language of his people. This was one of the first instances of citizens being given formal, defined rules on which they could base their conduct. As with most early innovations there were a few kinks in the system, take code 195 for example: “If a son strikes his father, they shall cut off his fingers”.
The Radio (1897)
The humble wireless that now can be found in every elevator, waiting room and Uber taxi in the world may be taken for granted these days but the man who first brought the “crackle box” to life was none other than Serbian wunderkind Nickola Tesla. When Tesla wasn’t dressing to the nines and having transcendental incidences with dying New York pigeons, he was masterfully controlling the invisible elements of the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit information through the air. Tesla’s seemingly magical invention at the time would be the beginnings of instant global communication.
Canned food (1810)
At the time when Napoleon was putting together an unbeaten win streak on the battlefields of Europe and doing his best to take over the world, his biggest handicap was he could only wage war in the summer and autumn months of the year. There simply wasn’t enough food to feed his conscripted army as they marched eastward for the glory of the French Empire. So the government put up 12000 francs to see if anyone could come up with a solution and in no time at all, French chocolateer and master brewer Nicholas Appert, came to the rescue with his idea of cooking and sealing foods inside glass jars. A year later in 1810 the Minister of the Interior handed over the reward money to Appert, a cool fifty grand in today’s bank, which he used to set up a canning factory of his own. Unfortunately for Appert, the can opener would not be invented for another half century and his newly built factory would be among the first to be burnt to the ground when the Allied Forces invaded France calling for the blood of the Little Emperor.