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Innovation Myths - a Quick Overview


It seems to me that inventors miss out on recognition and reward because of the pseudo-information in the environment about great inventive heroes. Nobody bothers to explain that most of these people lived miserable lives.

Unless an idea is integrated with the real world it will bring disaster to it's creator.  I've developed a model for the success process which has five parts;

Pt 1.  What one person can do.  (Get skills, imagine a better way, try practical things, talk to others, accumulate experience and data, learn from nature, use the best ideas, find a mentor, involve other people.)
Pt 2.  The need for mentors, peers, and supporters. 
Pt 3 Finding the resources for the task, the people, the physical resources and the cash required. 
Pt 4.  Access to and use of the best ideas and theories. 
Pt 5.  Practical successes or failures in the real world.

Look at what happened to Philo T Farnsworth who invented electronic television.  Farnsworth had 6 patents (Pt 1).  He was challenged by RCA (Pt 2), and RCA was able to get political support to delay the wide development of television based on Farnsworth's principles.  After 4 years of court battles, world war two delayed the development of television (Pt 5).  Farnsworth apparently lacked mentors and community support (Pt 2) which was the only tool he could have used against the money of RCA.  Farnsworth died in 1970, he had never received any money or recognition for his patents.

My thesis is that the most brilliant and hard working person only has direct control over their personal actions.  NZ's first aviator, Richard Pearse, for instance faced community opposition and disinterest (Pt 2), and huge difficulties of isolation from the mainstream of aviation ideas (Pt 4).  Pearse did have success (Pt 5), but he was disappointed with his own effort, he needed somebody to tell him how well he had done (Pt 2).  Finally the success of the Wright brothers (Pt 5), and the cultural cringe in NZ (Pt 2 or 3), added to the inability of the public in NZ to recognise what Pearse had achieved.  It could be argued that Pearse himself did not understand what he had achieved, and did not try to sell himself to the community (Pt 1). As I see it there are Richard Pearse's all over the place.  They don't understand that they can't succeed alone.  In fact they are told over and over the importance of positive thinking and of persistence in the task, but they are never told what they need, in addition to an idea that works, to be successful.  The myth of the "the lone hero" is perpetuated.  It's a lie.  Accidents of history are hugely important in the success stakes. All any individual can do is develop skills, become informed about the best ideas, seek support from others, seek resources and try to do practical things.  Sometimes things will go well, other people will be interested in the results and new options will open.  Sometimes the result of all the work done does not spark attention, nobody is interested and the available options are reduced.

There is another myth that business people need to abandon.  The idea of positive thinking is widely advocated as the key to innovative success. The myth is that the great man knew exactly what he was going to invent, "he visualized every detail", and then he went out and did it. I know, and I hope you know, that this is at best propaganda.  New ideas and products start vague and fuzzy and only slowly become something you understand. Even then you may not be able to explain it to anyone.  Finding the words, creating drawings, building a prototype are all successive stages in a continuing revelation.  Innovation is sustained by optimism, and the conviction that this effort is leading somewhere.  Hope, an optimistic view of the future and hard work are essential to innovative success.  Positive belief in the infallibility of the original idea is a disaster waiting to happen.

There may appear to be exceptions to the above paragraph.  Edwin Land describes an interesting case.  He had worked with light and scientific instruments for 20 years (Pt 1), he had never imagined inventing a camera. Then he photographed his daughter in the park and she asked to see the photograph (Pt 4 or 5).  As he started to explain why that wasn't possible, he realized that he knew conceptually how to make it possible.  It only took a few hours to prepare drawings that became the basis of his patents. I don't think this is a case of instant invention at all.  I think of the Land case as an extreme example of starting with a vague idea.  Land started with no idea at all.  Of course Land had worked for 20 years, doing practical things, working in the production of scientific instruments and I guess trying to develop lots of ideas, but none of them a camera.  The plot thickens because Land eventually had to fight Kodak (Pt 2 or 5) for his patent rights.

Positive thinking is the antithesis of good invention and the use of science and technology.  The creative person needs to work very hard for freedom from dogma, and pseudo-information, and things that "everyone knows" that are wrong.  Christopher Columbus was a positive thinker. His positive thinking helped him get a ship and sail to China.  He insisted that the "Indies" were close to Japan and China.  Columbus denied that the new continent existed.  Even after Amerigo Vespucci proved the existence of a new continent, we now call America after him, Columbus still denied it, and became a laughing stock.  A dogmatic view allows you to be powerful in narrow way, but then the narrowness becomes a coffin.  There must be lots of examples of NZ inventors who suffered that fate.

What form of notebook do you as an innovator maintain your records in? An American, Howard Gruber, studied creative people from history through their journals.  A journal is a place to develop your own ideas .  Nobody can be successful with the only ideas of other people.  You have to add something of your own, especially the integration of ideas with a practical objective.  Why don't we encourage innovators to keep journals?  Most of us learn five years too late that we should have been collecting systematic notes long ago.

Gruber found that new ideas took a long time to develop.  The seeds of a successful idea may appear in a journal 20 years before the idea is finally exposed to the public.  Those who think of a new idea often dismiss it, but some images keep coming back.  Fear of public ridicule or official disapproval frequently caused people to hide their good ideas.  Gruber also says that each person seems to develop shorthand methods of drawing diagrams and making notes.  Each person seems to develop favourite methods.  Gruber says that these "images of wide scope" are useful tools for giving an idea structure, and that these appear early in the journals and are used over and over for many different tasks.


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