Innovation — Mad Science or Revolution (or just plain old hard work?)

Where do the greatest inventions come from?

  • Out of the blue?
  • As a means to the end?
  • Borrowing from other related (and sometimes unrelated) technologies
  • Creative genius making the mundane seem innovative (lipstick on a pig?)

Absent innovations, much of the industry (or industries) that I work in would falter. New products need to come out to add value, as, in time, the old ceases to be terribly interesting, and eventually brings things to a “new normal.”

These things come from all angles. Someone (at some point) gets a bright idea that you can add significant value to customer’s livelihoods by offering an approach, a piece of software, or new equipment that allows them to either look at the world differently, or perhaps get an edge on their competition. The idea alone, while great, is never enough. (unless you’re one of those people who think its enough to file a patent & then troll around waiting for someone to do something that looks like your idea and then sues them, but I digress).

Real innovation, valuable innovation, is a combination of good ideas and a lot of hard work. Edison was right. Way back in 1903, he said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” That is as true today as its ever been. I’m sure that, in many cases, the people with the ideas may not even benefit from them. It’s the folks who are crafty and hard-working enough to turn those ideas into something that reaches the audience in a meaningful way.

But, there should also be a word of caution here. More often than not, technology organizations are faced with an onslaught of work, and a finite ability to do that work. When presented with that scenario, it’s incredibly easy to fall into a pattern of doing only those things that are clearly prescribed. In many cases, that can be the right thing to do, as it helps ensure that the work at hand gets done on time, and done well.

Given those pressures, I think that the best approach is to not let your team get tangled into pretending that they can do both jobs at the same time. Somehow, there needs to be some separation. This can be accomplished in a few different ways, including:

  • Setup separate teams to explore new ideas and encourage them to try things out that are creative, aren’t necessarily directly coupled with specific product commitments, and stand a pretty good chance of being completely worthless. Have a good idea intake process.
  • Make sure that people are having fun doing their jobs, even if under stress. Encourage people to have a sense of humor, welcome imaginative thinking, It’s not a bad idea to allow for a certain amount of silliness.
  • Always be aware of what your customers are dealing with. Be free to think about things that might make their lives more productive and/or rewarding.
  • When facing new requirements or opportunities, take a few moments to step back & wonder if there might be new and different ways to provide a solution. Are there different technologies that could provide synergy? Are there related problems that could be solved in tandem

Once you have the idea, the approach, and strategy, the real trick is finding a way to get it to market, and capture mind share. Ideally, that is something that you can do in a way that you can uniquely provide, and maintain that unique advantage for long enough to make a difference in the marketplace.

Getting back to my original question, I’d have to conclude that true innovation is a combination of all kinds of ingredients. The ideas absent the hard work are a bit like a falling tree in a forest….


About Mike Rodbell

I'm a technology leader, engaged in developing software for the telecom, online commerce, and business process/analysis markets. All of the teams I've worked with have had a great deal in common. They need to be good at what they do, listen, share, and collaborate towards a shared set of goals. This blog is dedicated to those activities. I hope you enjoy reading it.
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