An innovation creates a new dimension of performance. It’s not enough to improve performance. It’s not enough to create a new thought. A new thing is not an innovation unless it finds a new direction for performance. The word performance here indicates that the innovation is in active use. It’s not just an invention; it is something that is used in production and that produces new avenues of wealth. Interestingly, an innovation does not have to be based on a new invention. Sometimes, and I might say many times, an innovation comes from combining existing inventions in a novel way.
Innovations happen in encounters. To really innovate, you must step outside your comfort zone. You must meet a new world. You must venture into something. You must take the risk of the unexpected. You must go somewhere where you are vulnerable. When you do that, many times you fail. But once in a while, you succeed, and you have an innovation at hand.
Open source software is an innovation in that it brings together in a productive way programmers who disagree on many things. Facebook is an innovation, for it meets the human need to connect at an entirely new level. The touchscreen is an innovation in that it brings output and input together in a way we are used to from the physical world. E-learning is an innovation, for it democratizes both teaching and learning. Massive industries are growing up around these innovations.
These innovations are the result of vision and courage. Someone – an individual or a team – had the ability to look beyond the obvious and the courage to do something most people would have found silly.
Major technological inventions and advances underlie all those innovations. But the innovation itself, in retrospect, was actually within the reach of many people. The innovation was a timely combination of disparate advances in technology and human behaviour. But it didn’t require a PhD.
This is the intriguing and stressful reality of innovations: in retrospect, they look obvious. This intrigues us, because we realize that anyone with an open and bold mind can be an innovator. It also stresses us, because when we are looking for innovations, they are not at all obvious. We can’t seem to find them no matter how hard we work, how intelligent we are or how much education we have amassed.
We rationalize innovation envy by stating that the innovator is a genius, or that the timing was right. That is true, of course. But the reality is that we don’t fully understand the mechanism behind innovations. And perhaps we never will. Perhaps it is an innovation precisely because it happens in a part of our mind that isn’t decipherable and explainable. Perhaps an innovation is like a useful evolutionary DNA mutation: it happens for no obvious reason, and it gains longevity because it is serendipitously highly useful to its hosts.
Perhaps we should just be thankful when innovations happen. We should absolutely chase innovations with all our might. But perhaps we should also agree that innovations emerge unexpectedly. You probably have to be a genius to make an innovation. But even if you never come up with an innovation, you might still be a genius. It just hasn’t been your time – yet.