Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How to create innovation.

Post 320 - Listening to the arguments over health care reform started me thinking about how little seems to be understood about how to create innovation.

For hundreds of years, people thought that the breaststroke was the fastest way to swim, although the way the swimmer’s arms recovered underwater was really inefficient. Then, in the 1850s, some competitive swimmers noticed that Native Americans and Australian aborigines used a stroke with an out-of-the-water, over-arm recovery and began to experiment with the new stroke - a key innovation. They found they had to find a new kick to go along with this new way of swimming, and about the turn of the century, the flutter kick was perfected - a second important innovation. Since then, there have been a large number of small improvements in the crawl stroke, such as rotating side to side rather than swimming flat in the water. Even today, there’s still room for discovery and improvement. A combination of breakthrough innovation and small, incremental improvements - both were important in the development of modern swimming.

Federico Faggin, who invented the first 4-bit microprocessor at Intel in the early seventies, describes the creative process as follows:

The creative process starts with a soup of ideas made up of our own experiences, what we’ve learned from others we know or work with, and ideas we’ve picked up from the media. The first phase is the crystallization of an idea, the 'aha' phase, where we find the conceptual blueprint for a new product or process.

Next, the essence of the idea emerges. It becomes crisp, clear, and real, and is made to work.

The third stage involves introducing the new idea in the real world. This is the most critical stage because here, reactions are generally hostile. Some opposition comes from those who fail to understand the significance of the innovation, some comes from those who are threatened by changes in the status quo, and some comes from those with competing ideas.

But the main problem with new ideas is that they’re different. When something is new, people wonder how it’s going to fit into the old. They’re bogged down in the metaphors of the old and can’t understand something new that’s outside their current experience. They don’t know how to integrate new messages into familiar patterns of thinking and behavior. It takes tremendous self-confidence and persistence to win acceptance for new ideas. And because some of the inevitable criticism will probably be well founded, it takes honesty and pragmatism to know when an idea should be modified or abandoned.

The next phase is one of endorsement, where champions emerge to help the pioneers by lending their credibility to the new idea and giving it visibility. This acceptance triggers the acknowledgment phase during which the idea is widely adopted and used. The inventor gets public recognition and a star is born. Next comes the stage of invisibility, where the idea is no longer considered new and becomes part of the normal fabric of society.

New ideas are most readily received by those in new situations who have something they want to get done, have few preconceived ideas about the right or normal way to do it, and have little to lose by adopting the new. Victor Hugo said, “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Unfortunately, most people begin to realize the time has come only long after it’s arrived.

“The search for static security - in the law and elsewhere – is misguided. The fact is security can only be achieved through constant change, through discarding old ideas that have outlived their usefulness and adapting others to current facts.” - William O.Douglas.

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