I’d like to explore innovation at little. From my perspective innovation is a little like an overplayed radio tune. I mean every business marketer, journalist, blogger, or random person has a viewpoint on it. I am not here to argue against the merits of innovation. No doubt it is an admired and highly sought after quality but what is it exactly? If I were to point to a product, service, or thing and ask you – “is this thing innovative?” most people will have an opinion but not all opinions would align. OK, let’s level set: From the online dictionary at Merriam-Webster.com:
in·no·va·tion noun \ˌi-nə-ˈvā-shən\
1 : the introduction of something new
2 : a new idea, method, or device : novelty
This helped set the lense for me – new and novel. It also left some space for me to provide my own perspectives on innovation (yes, I’m one of those bloggers). I believe that there are few truly new or novel ideas. Instead there are discoveries (the genesis of things), and then there are a series of process steps, iterated upon to deliver something that we would all agree is innovative and adds value to society. In most cases the person or teams going through these processes do so at great risk. This doesn’t necessarily mean risk to one’s life but it regularly means risk to reputation, financial risk, etc. I’ve discussed risk and high consequence and how it can be a FLOW trigger here. Let’s take some examples of discoveries:
- The internal combustion engine, see History of the internal combustion engine
- Rockets, satellites, GPS, …
Even within these examples there are much more fundamental things at play, e.g. Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, and of course Business. There are also countless iterations that have been taken by the early practitioners towards developing something of value to society. You may not consider refrigeration innovative at this point because it doesn’t meet the “new” quality but stop and consider before you grab that next popsicle that less than a century ago ice was shipped in from the far north and south. It was then typically stored in underground cellars, then sawed into blocks and sold to businesses and the public just to keep things cool, not cold. Oh and air conditioning in your home or car, not so much…
So let’s get into my thesis. I believe that after core knowledge and discoveries, innovation comes down to three primary process steps.
- Curation – In this step something is discovered, or rediscovered. For example a budding jazz musician discovers Miles Davis or John Coltrane for the first time. These early and ongoing investigations into a topic influence the would be innovator. They provide a frame, perspective, and links to “go deeper”.
- Imitation – It’s is rare that something is discovered and then just goes viral. Instead the would be innovator must develop a level of competency, and to do this they imitate the skills and strategies of other’s from step 1. This is the deep practice phase. It also underscores the importance of mentors and refinement in the curation step.
- Synthesis – Here is where the magic happens. The discoveries and curation from 1. are combined with the skills and competencies built in 2. and finally the key ingredient is the individual’s or team’s unique and fresh perspective on the topic is applied to create something truly unique and hopefully valuable. Note – the valuable quality is never guaranteed. In addition to all of this, the innovator better have a marketing plan, an audience, and a platform to promote their efforts to the point of self sustaining momentum.
Let’s discuss a quick example. I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that most would considered Steve Jobs a force in innovation and that the company that he lead, Apple, delivers some for the worlds most innovative products. Stop and think back a few years to June of 2007 when the first iPhone was introduced. Was I the only one who formally carried around all of these devices:
- A Blackberry (Cellular phone with email & SMS Text capabilities, perhaps a camera)
- An MP3 player, don’t tell me you were still jamming a discman…:-)
- A mobile GPS
- A DSLR camera w/ flash
- A laptop computer with a PCMCIA card for data access
I can remember distinctively thinking to myself – “Why don’t the cell phone manufactures create a Swiss Army Knife of cell phones that can do everything that all of these other devices do in a single device?”.
I’m sure the idea wasn’t original. I can imagine product managers at Motorola planning years of future profits as they incrementally rolled out 1-2 new features each year, and then “it” debuted. The iPhone, and we all took notice. Was it perfect, nope, but it moved us in the direction that everyone had been imagining things could go. Apple had a few new tricks that weren’t so obvious as well.
- A new mobile operating system in iOS. This was curation and applied learning that Steve Jobs brought with him from his first stint at Apple, and his later efforts at NeXT. Steve implicitly understood the power of the computer or in this case the mobile computer as a platform for applications.
- A marketplace for app developers that developed for iOS in iTunes. This provided developers and technologists with an entirely new eco system to innovate in ensuring that the iPhone would outpace the rate of innovation of all other mobile platforms until the arrival of a new and worthy competitor.
So what’s my point? People and companies aren’t born innovators, but they typically display some common traits:
- They are creative, have a keen eye for things that matter, and possess a tireless pursuit for how things might be done better.
Success is a refined study of the obvious. -Jim Rohn
- They are willing to work through the process of Curation, Imitation, and Synthesis to realize their visions.
Do you have a take on innovation? If so, leave a comment below and let’s start the dialog.
Featured image, licensed under CreativeCommons via Gart Barber on flickr.com Swiss Army Knife, licensed under CreativeCommons via Christian Naenne on flickr.com