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The secret behind innovation

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Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The secret behind innovation

Scott Miker

Most people think of innovation as a flash of genius, a sudden realization that changes the course of the world.  In an instant everything changes.

But if you explore popular innovations you will see that there is typically a different path.  The path of innovation seems more like evolution than it does a stroke of genius. 

It is widely known that famous innovators like Einstein, Edison, and Ben Franklin spent years working on their ideas.  Yet for some reason when we talk about innovation today we feel it has to be an overnight success rather than a long and grueling process. 

In fact, Clayton Christenson wrote about a concept called disruptive technology in his book, The Innovators Dilemma.  It wasn’t that a sudden technology or innovation was created and instantly brought down large corporations who owned that particular industry.  It was actually so slow that the large corporations ignored and dismissed the technology because they didn’t feel it could really compete and disrupt their industry. 

Let me elaborate on a famous innovator that, mistakenly, gets looked at through this sudden innovation perspective. 

In 1968, Dick Fosbury won a gold medal in the Summer Olympics in the high jump.  The reason that this is noteworthy is because this was the first time that someone jumped in the manner that he did.  Most high jumpers at the time went over by facing the bar or doing a scissor-type jump.  Nobody thought to jump the way that Fosbury did, backwards. 

Suddenly, overnight people knew of this incredibly creative way to approach the high jump.  But it wasn’t sudden when you really evaluate it.  In fact there were other innovations that lead to this technique being developed.  One was the fact that foam pads were being used instead of sand pits or low piles of matting.  Prior to these foam pads, it would have been too dangerous to jump backwards and risk a serious injury after each jump. 

But even Fosbury didn’t think this up overnight.  He actually started years ago by being unable to properly use the other techniques available.  So he took a scissor jump and started to modify it.  For years people weren’t following his lead.  He was more of a novelty until he improved it enough to gain an advantage over other jumpers. 

This represents the secret to innovation.  The secret is that innovation tends to follow incremental improvement.  While we may hear about a new innovation overnight, or we may look back at history and say a time when a new innovation was developed was a pivotal point for mankind, the reality is that these innovations took years to develop. 

The first computer was announced in 1946.  It was the Electronic Numerator, Integrator, Analyzer and Computer (ENIAC).  But it took decades for the computer to evolve enough to completely change the world.  Each innovation of computer technology added to the abilities and use of the computer. 

If you are looking for an innovative solution don’t just rely on a flash of genius.  Most innovators spend years working on various ideas.  The incremental improvements that need to happen can only happen by working systematically through a problem to constantly improve the solution.