Innovation is a slow dance – the long slog behind our lightbulb moments

 
© Emilio Garcia on flickr

© Emilio Garcia on flickr

 
 
 

Eureka! It’s a common trap to equate innovation with lightbulb moments of invention. The lone inventor staring at a problem hard enough before making their breakthrough discovery and making the previously impossible possible. The world taking a giant leap forward because of a single event.

Google calls them Moonshoots. Elon Musk wants to reinvent our lives around them. Today’s entrepreneurs and visionaries were brought up believing them:

“Innovation means creating what is not. Innovation means creating what the world hasn’t seen before.” – Funky Business

This picture of innovation is heroic, seductive and incredibly newsworthy. But is it even remotely a reality?

Rarely. 99.99% of what we celebrate as innovation is actually borne from a series of mini-breakthroughs built up over time and across many fields. To a large extent these ideas and inventions already existed in some form or another, it’s just that they existed a long way away from the public consciousness.

It takes money, time, a cross-pollination of experts and a healthy dose of competition to transform an initially indifferent invention into an ultimately disruptive innovation. Of course moments of genius happen but they do so in slow motion.

 

 
 

"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."

—Carl Sagan

 
 

 

I’ll give you an example from this week …

On Monday media around the globe celebrated the news that a team of researchers had created a graphene-based sieve capable of turning seawater into drinking water. This matters on many levels, not least because of it could provide drinking water for the 1.2 billion people that are expected to be without it in 2020.

We’re all aware of the traditional method of doing this: boiling seawater, capturing the steam and condensing it back into water. To the naked eye it appears that overnight we’ve jumped from this relatively simple method to being able to completely strips salts and minerals from the water. It’s actually been 13 years in the making – a series of mini-breakthroughs getting us to this point.

While graphene has been known to exist since at least 1947, it had been very difficult to isolate. Until a "Friday night experiments" session at Manchester University in 2004 that is. The discovery netted its discoverers Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov the Nobel Prize for Physics, knighthoods and the new The National Graphene Institute with cutting-edge equipment and mammoth investment.

As the thinnest and strongest material ever devised, the last decade has seen a global race to find potential applications of its promising properties and to commercialise it. It’s a race that has attracted hundreds of millions of pounds in research and unbelievable number of patents. Samsung alone already had 407 to its name by 2013. The UK made its exploitation a national research priority.

Back on the water front, this lead to a number of filtering breakthroughs had been made in recent years and the technique is already powering major power plants. This week’s news is one of the first times it promises to one day become cost-effectively mass produced.

The lesson here is the collision of many actors, accidents and investments required to turn an invention into innovation. Ideas themselves are aplenty, the real skill is in making them a competitive advantage or accessible for everyone.

Nothing is original, we’re just remixing.

A lot of what we will consider revolutionary tomorrow already exists today, it’s just that they can currently be found in a university lab rather than in the mainstream. The breakthrough innovations of the next 10 years have already existed for at least that amount of time.

“Originality is a myth. Nothing can come from nothing because one cannot invent without inventory.”

Faris Yakob of Genius Steals

Behind that moment of creativity exists a lot of other people’s craft.

This ‘incubation period’ is what feeds innovation.

Successful innovation is commonly seen to need speed: the faster you can move from idea to implementation the better. However, it’s only when we relieve ourselves from such pressures and allow our minds to drift can we do our best thinking.

We know this because we’ve all had an epiphany when on a run or in the shower. Our subconscious mind has been searching for that killer idea all along, but it’s only able to enter your conscious mind when there’s sufficient room.

 

“In other words, distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.’’

-Shelley H. Carson, author of Your Creative Brain

 

The same phenomenon exists in business. Corporations try to force innovation with innovation zones or the sporadic idea days instead of creating the culture necessary for staff ideas to succeed. The true innovators end up leaving and doing their best work elsewhere.

It happens across sectors too. Business fields are caught napping by a young upstart, having become too comfortable and complacent. Innovation is a slow burner but it can have immediate impact.

So what does this all mean?

Speed is important, but being the first to commercialise is arguably more valuable than the act of invention.

Give room to problems. Breakthrough innovations need time and thinking space to bubble up to the surface.

Give room to projects. The rapid-iterations of Agile are good for optimum solutions not original ideas.

Look at 10-year-old inventions. They will power the next round of disruptive innovations.


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Stuart Goulden