Monday, May 18, 2009

Turning seeds into success: What's the secret?

What makes an innovation tick? How does the potential innovator know whether the outcome of her substantial toils are going to bear fruit and succeed in the marketplace? Perhaps its a good thing that the work of innovators (usually) is only loosely-coupled to eventual market success and that innovators are driven to innovate by forces far greater than the certainty of market success.

Stories of innovations without fairy tale endings, like this list of "disappointing technologies", probably should never be read by potential innovators -- or their employers and funders. Alternatively, it's a good thing that innovators are driven by a deep belief in the value and acceptance of their work, or else they might give up too early. It's the same sort of thing with mothers and their children: only a small fraction of those kids grow up to become movers and shakers in the world of ideas; but to every mother, her child is a potential genius to be nurtured and treated like one anyway.

Innovation works the same way: out of thousands of attempts, only a few move far along the evolutionary chain; most others never germinate, or reach an evolutionary dead-end for a variety of reasons.

And those reasons are not merely technological. There are financial issues, organizational issues and people and cultural issues. And innovations that fail in the areas for which they were originally intended sometimes find a second wind and are wildly successful elsewhere.

The process of innovation blooms and grows best in an ecosystem that encourages exploration and inquiry. And most of all it is tolerant of, perhaps encouraging towards, and possibly even rewards, failure. Human society would never accept a mother who abandons her child because she showed no early signs of genius. Apart from the ethicality of abandoning innocent children, the point regarding the child's potential is "Who knows how the child will turn out when she grows up?" And there is no dearth of genius that blooms late, after the ripe old (not!) age of 50.

So the first step on the path towards creating a culture that produces blockbusters of innovation is to create an ecosystem where engaging in the process of innovation (rather than merely measured outputs -- i.e., finished innovations) is rewarded and recognized.

Indeed, looking back at that list of "disappointments" in the article above -- the list includes Ubuntu Linux, Virtual Reality, voice recognition, Firewire, and Bluetooth -- I don't see one that was an outright failure (even if it wasn't an earthshaking blockbuster). Indeed, even those innovations that might legitimately be deemed failures typically lead to spinoffs, many of which later become blockbusters. Once again, this demonstrates that innovation is an ongoing process; and it is the process -- the journey, as it were -- that is critical, not a count of the few awe-inspiring blinding flashes that occasionally take over the world.

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