2 min read

Innovation is a Word That Mostly Defines Our Own Ignorance

Innovators do not get up in the morning and think “I’m going to change the world!”, they wake up and think “That pretty obvious, I wonder why no-one’s done that yet.”  If they move on to actually doing that, and they are successful, someone else will call them innovators.

The newness of things is a perception we have based on our own knowledge.  When we point at something and say ‘That was innovative.’, what we are really saying is ‘That is something good that I was previously too ignorant to think feasible.’  And speaking as someone who works on $400 magic boxes that think – and who couldn’t build one even if someone gave me whole Intel factory – I’m rather grateful that good stuff I’m ignorant of keeps on happening!

Take Apple, the average guy on the street will credit them with inventing the tablet PC.   People working in tech are impressed that Apple made a tablet that people wanted to use after half the industry had launched them and failed.  People inside of Apple are probably frustrated that it took a so long for touch screen costs to fall enough to get the simple designs they finished a year ago into the shops.

The people we call innovators are blessed with a relatively wider perspective on what might work than we have ourselves.  This is subjective, e.g. it depends on who ‘we’ are.  In the computer industry innovation might be an understanding that you have to make a tablet PC wide enough to touch type on; in the bowls of vast bureaucracy it might be the realisation that box 7 on form 827(B) is actually redundant even though you would only know that if you had worked in both HR and after-sales.  In a sufficiently sclerotic organisation, any change, even keeping up with common industry practice is (within that organisation itself) genuinely innovative.

And in real life, we usually do use innovative as a subjective (rather than a relative) term.  If a business person asks me if The Cloud is innovative, I could take half an hour to explain how it represents a series of incremental steps from the 1960s Utility Computing model, but I’ve learned to just say ‘yes’.  A similar process happens to me if I ask questions about fashion.

Pierre Omidyar didn’t launch eBay thinking that online auctions were a novel human behaviour that people would adopt if he showed them the path.  He launched it after observing people who were already trading online.  To him, even if the scale and growth of eBay was a huge surprise, that fact that people wanted it at all, was not.

Accepting that what we personally define as innovation is genuinely subjective, we should not be surprised that we rarely see innovators jumping between different fields.  Bill Gates’s unique perspective on the rise of the PC, doesn’t put him in a position see further on future of agriculture.  (Even if being highly intelligent and too rich to work might help.)  Plenty of people have Bill Gates’s brains and business savey.  Not many of them were standing next the Homebrew Computer club in the 70s.

So if you’re thinking of starting something new, maybe the question is not ask others if your innovating, but to ask yourself ‘what makes me weird enough to believe this is possible’.  The first person smart enough to think of cooking meat was the caveman dumb enough to get caught hauling a cavender through a thunderstorm 🙂