The Misleading Myths of Innovation

The Misleading Myths of Innovation

We like very primal stories. Good and evil. Hero and villain. Our narratives around invention and innovation have much of this primal simplicity. The myth goes that an invention springs from the mind of a single great individual. This invention is instantly comprehensible and makes a quick connection with the world. The inventor is an overnight success. It is a compelling narrative as it maximises the feeling of potential and minimises the feelings of discomfort, ridicule and uncertainty.

I think this sort of story is deceptive. It over-simplifies a much more interesting reality.  It can also serve as an excuse not to put our ideas out in the world or to give up on projects that aren’t instantly grasped and validated and picked up by the outer world. Let’s consider a few examples of how a few products and services came to life to see if there are some patterns here.

In 1829, Charles Goodyear, the man whose name rides nearly every car tire, spent more time in debtor’s prison then out of it, trying to experiment with a better way to make flexible rubber. It took until 1843 to perfect the pliable rubber that we know today. His name adorns the product, only because in 1898, Frank Sieberling was generous in naming his newly formed tire company after the inventor of the vulcanisation process. 

In 1854, Elisha Otis, the inventor of the first practical safety lift (elevator) developed it in response to safely lift goods up and down his furniture factory. He demonstrated it widely, making quite a showing at the world fair in New York. However, he died at 49, before his company made the invention its wider success we know today.

In 1948, on overhearing a conversation about the challenges of automated product identification, Bernard Silver and a friend Norman Woodland spent several years developing an idea for the barcode and getting a patent. Woodland was working at IBM and tried to convince them to participate in the project, but they refused. Finally the inventors sold it to a different company in 1962. It took another several years until the scanners and processes were in place for the idea to scale. Nearly fifty years after its invention, it became a widely distributed product.

In 1964, Douglas Engelbart invented the computer mouse. By 1982, Logitech, now one of the world’s largest manufacturers of computer peripherals was releasing the first commercially available mice. Engelbart never benefited from his invention, as his patent had expired.

A more modern example, in 1997, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning developed the first e-reader, the RocketBook. Eberhard and Tarpenning offered Amazon shares in the RocketBook, but the deal fell through. They partnered with Barnes and Noble instead. By 2007, their product was long gone and the Amazon Kindle entered the market. 

These examples help us untangle the difference between those people that invented a new technology and those who use a more proven version of the technology in an innovative way. This is a timeless progression, from cutting edge inventions to to the more stable innovations.

A new technology’s social, financial and engineering underpinnings are raw and usually flawed. It takes time to make sense of them. Over time, the idea evolves, looking for the right niche. It can take time to find the right components, the right problem, the right business model and the right story around its use. This process is much longer and usually involves far more failure then people give it credit for. Only at the end, when all the details are in place, does an idea scale.

There are three big myths that come out of this.

Innovation Myth #1: Innovation can help you avoid failure

If you want to invent or innovate something, you need to rethink your relationship to failure. Rather then something to be feared and avoided; the process of trying, failing and learning from the experience is fundamental to both invention and innovation. If you fear failure, you will struggle with the reality of the process. 

Innovation Myth #2: Innovation is all about your personal success

The further out you reach, the more ambitious your vision, be prepared to be generous with your ideas. You may not end up directly benefiting from them. Instead, your reward will be one of having contributed a crucial step towards the future. Many of the inventors or innovators actually did not benefit directly from the fruits of their labour.

Innovation Myth #3: You can avoid innovation

Whether you choose to lead the process or not, innovation will change the way your industry works. It always has and always will.



Jack, A. (2015) They Laughed at Galileo, Constable




Photo of Tires by Imthaz Ahamed on Unsplash

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