Flashes of Brilliance
As the story goes, Archimedes cried out “Eureka!” in delight as he stepped into a bathtub and observed the level of the water rise. It was in that moment that he understood that the volume of his submerged foot was equal to the volume of water displaced when he stepped into the tub. From that he concluded that the volume of irregular objects could be accurately measured.
We hear these types of stories all of the time. You know the ones I’m talking about. The creative genius who revolutionized an entire industry based upon a brilliant idea that came to him in a dream or some spiritual vision quest. We love these stories. We elevate these individuals to legendary status.
Steve Jobs. Yes, you knew I was going to mention his name. Without a doubt, he is the most talked about icon of the modern era when it comes to the topic of innovation. He took Apple, Inc. from the brink of failure and catapulted it to one of the world’s most beloved brands. He took existing products and completely reimagined how we use them. He created entirely new markets based upon his vision and gut instincts. Nearly every designer, product manager and entrepreneur dreams of being the next Steve Jobs.
Countless numbers of people read his biographies, watch his speeches and try to emulate his lifestyle. All in the hopes that they can channel some elusive universal secret. Some nirvana like status that will transform them into an entrepreneurial genius, unleashing a fountain of innovative ideas. Though many have tried, few have succeeded.
While these stories make for great headlines and sell plenty of books, the truth is…though innovation is commonly hyped as lightning strike moments of brilliance, it is more often the result of tireless iterations and serendipitous accidents. You heard me right…hard work and luck.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson changed the world by transmitting sound over electrical wires, creating the very first telephone. The duo are celebrated as genius inventors. There is no doubt that they were true intellectual giants, but most people don’t know that the foundations of their ingenuity were pure happenstance. While working to create a multiple harmonic telegraph, Watson plucked at one of the transmitting reeds in a fit of frustration after yet another failed attempt to transmit a signal. He was startled when Bell rushed into the room and demanded him to do it again. Bell had heard the actual sound of Watson plucking the reed transmitted over the wire. The sound was carried from the transmitter, through the wire and out of the receiver, which Bell was monitoring in another room. Bell realized then that sound, not just tones generated by the reed, could be transmitted over the wire. After that incident Bell and Watson spent more than nine months building and testing several prototypes before they could successfully recreate the experiment.
I didn’t fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.
― Benjamin Franklin
Their ultimate success was due to hard work and luck. At the time of their revelation, the two were not even working on the telephone. It was only by chance that they stumbled across this discovery. Still, it took them several iterations and many failed attempts before they finally got it right.
The Sum of All Failures
Success is messy. When we see most products or solutions, we are presented with a clean, sterilized view of the final results. Everything is neatly packaged and well polished. What we don’t see are the frantic scribbles, the countless mistakes, the misconceptions, the misguided hypotheses and the miserable failures that were accumulated along the way.
Real innovation comes from failing early and failing often. It requires passion, experimentation, an open mind and perseverance. Failure is inevitable. It is a necessary ingredient to every success story.
The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.
― Henry Ford
Making Things Better
Another fallacy about innovation is that has to be something completely new. Something never heard of or seen before. While there are many examples that meet this criteria, there are many more that have had an even greater impact on the world, but were less grandiose. These other types of innovations are more common place and focused on improving existing products or processes rather than creating new ones.
In North America, we attribute the idea of interchangeable parts to Eli Whitney, but in actuality, the earliest ideas came from Europe. Samuel Bentham, an English naval engineer, and Honoré LeBlanc, a French gunsmith first realized the importance of using uniform parts. Gun making was a very skilled, labor intensive craft at the time. Whitney, already an inventor, understood how machining parts could allow for greater efficiency in the mass production of industrial goods. Now, something that used to require a highly skilled craftsman could be built in mass quantities using unskilled laborers.
Boykin was an engineer. He is most noted for his work with resistors. He patented a resistor that was more durable and less expensive to build than previous versions. His improvement was so well received that it was quickly adopted for use in guided missles and computers.
Both Whitney and Boykin took existing ideas and made them better. The impact of their efforts were vast and long lasting. In addition to making things cheaper and more reliable to manufacture, ultimately their work had a profound affect on consumers of these products. Cheaper manufacturing costs equate to lower prices for consumers. The more affordable an item is, the greater access it provides to governments, companies and individuals. In addition to affordability, consumers could have greater peace of mind, because the products were more reliable.
Innovation is a highly sought after commodity these days. Media hype and Marketing efforts would have us believe that there is something mystical about our modern day heros. We are deceived into believing that they are all these brilliant geniuses that are just plain smarter than us. The real truth is that anyone can be an innovator. But there are no shortcuts. All you need is a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck.