Can we accelerate the rate that innovation occurs in a given area?
In the old days, the answer was “nyet”. Innovation occurs in a serendipity manner. You are grateful when you get it, but you cannot predict how frequently it might occur.
We are beginning to see that the old wisdom is wrong. A variety of factors affect the rate of innovation in any area, and by working on those “factors”, we can nurture or retard the rate that innovation occurs.
For example, Steve Johnson spoke some years ago that great ideas emerge from social settings – conversations. In other words, there is a social dimension to innovation. Upgrading that social dimension speeds up the rate of innovation. Downgrading that social dimension and you slow it down.
Another example – we know that ideas flow from perceived demand. The demand for cotton fabric in England — that had to be imported from India at considerable expense — provided the basis for investing in steam engines to power manufacturing them in England.
And we know that perceived demand arises from a story. So, a company that commits to a large story (like Tesla trying to replace fossil fuel based transport) is more likely to commit to innovation than a company that is simply meeting demand as it exists now.
Henry Ford’s original vision for the automobile was to reduce the cost of rural transportation. That was his story. When he succeeded through his innovative assembly line production, Ford stuck to the vision that cars were essentially for the purpose of reducing the cost of transportation. The folks at GM understood that the vision could be much larger – cars as part of a mobile lifestyle. They innovated to achieve that. BTW, one could argue that GM stopped going down its innovation path when it achieved that mobile lifestyle, setting the stage for its own disruption by a larger vision still.
And that brings me to the idea of “continuous innovation”. By continuous, I mean innovation that is needed to match a vision of future demand as it evolves over time. Steve Jobs offers a compelling example with his vision for great design in mobile entertainment. That led him to commit to developing the Ipod (music), then the Iphone (talk and much more) and the Ipad (books, video, etc on a mobile platform). Jobs believed in the path, not just the individual products ad hoc.
Al Wenger offers another example — MongoDB. check it out!
My point – in all of the above, you might notice that single firms and individuals tend towards limited visions. They only follow the innovation path so far. Institutions that commit to finding paths (VC’s for example) can accelerate innovation by prusuing larger stories. But VC’s only plunge in (invest) when they see manageable risks. That means coming in at a relatively late stage of story development.
We can do better if we find institutions that promote those stories earlier. Greg Satell has a nice example of this in the quest to find more efficient energy storage.
Greg’s story is an example of an “innovation based ecology” – one that forms at the early stage of a given story and commits to its full realization — to commercialization. From idea to capacity to demand, to prototype to business model. Interesting!