Business Brains

Is successful innovation just dumb luck?

Posting in Government

Robert Scoble, who celebrates innovation far and wide across the tech sector, got a chuckle out of a statement by Google CEO Eric Schmidt that his meg...

Robert Scoble, who celebrates innovation far and wide across the tech sector, got a chuckle out of a statement by Google CEO Eric Schmidt that his mega-colossus of a company is only going to chase the really, really big markets: "We don't want to work on problems that only affect a small number of people."

By the time a market is a mass market, the greatest innovations that fuel it are usually behind it. Rather, the greatest opportunities for innovation are in places where nobody is looking. Scoble illustrates:

"Innovations usually come about when it doesn't seem like anyone is interested. Let's go back to 2006 when Twitter was first released. I remember showing it to other people. They thought it was the lamest thing they'd ever seen. See, no one was sitting around and saying 'I have a problem, I need a way to blog but I want to be limited to only 140 characters.'"

Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation, however, says Scoble isn't quite accurate, and that larger enterprises also have shown they can deliver new innovation with existing ideas. Innovation can come from start-ups, from large organizations, and even huge government bureaucracies if the circumstances are right:

"The Apollo moon landing missions, perhaps the greatest innovation we will ever have, was achieved by a huge government led bureaucracy of 500,000 people, which given how the start-up culture often talks about how innovation only happens at start-ups, should have been an abysmal failure."

Berkun observes some very prominent corporations, including Toyota, 3M, and Boeing, have very agile research and development groups "that are often focused on small, interesting experiments."

However, the rub with innovation, no matter who is behind it, is that it is difficult to plan for or even predict. Often, it takes a visionary within an organization, or leading a start-up, to try to make it work. More often than not, he cautions, the idea does not work. If all the stars are in the right alignment, then there's a chance for success:

"The microwave, Teflon and Velcro were discovered or inspired by accidents. Name a method or hypothesis for how innovation happens and you can find examples in history that would suggest it is the way to go. Problem is every single one has extremely high rates of failure. There are always too many factors you can not control (the market, trends, wars, competitors, etc.)."

In its early stages, in fact, innovation is often quashed or ridiculed as being impossible -- as Scoble points out when Twitter was first conceived. It's easy for an already successful enterprise to put forth its ideas and get people behind it.  But, as Berkun points out, "anyone there at the beginning of  Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter, the United States of America, life on earth, or even the universe, would know how unpopular and unlikely all the sane successful people around at the time thought their ideas were."

The bottom line is no one really knows why certain innovations take off, Berkun says. "Many good ideas die and bad ideas win. People who win take credit for luck. People who lose blame luck. But in both cases, luck is a major factor in why certain ideas take off when they do."

I have to disagree a bit with Berkun on this notion. Yes, it helps immensely to have the stars in alignment. But great ideas have proponents behind them with the determination and courage to push forward, no matter how hard the resistance they face. That's one of the defining factors. Another is having a systematic means to encourage, incubate, and bring these innovations forward. Yes, many good ideas have ended up on the cutting-room floor. All the more the reason to foster a culture of innovation with organizations that will help remove barriers and cast some sunlight on worthwhile innovations. Smart businesses grow on taking risks with new ideas, not settling down with the tried and true.

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure