One of the most irritating conversations I am dragged into, is that moment when some senior management person or some senior technology boss says:
We need to do more innovation.
My heart stops. Oh-god-no… If we’re asking the question we’re already screwed.
And Lord Help Me, but the conversation that always follows the mandate for more innovation is the debate:
What is innovation…
And then every single person in the organization becomes a theologian debating how many angels can dance on a the head of a pin… We have offsites, and training classes, and meetings and posters and metrics and …
Because, ultimately, one man’s innovations is another woman’s obviously boring idea.
And that got me thinking. What if the man and the woman are right? That innovation is actually relative to your point of view?
When I think about innovation, I think of the process of doing something new. The question then becomes, what is new?
Let’s consider three interesting edges in the world of human knowledge. One edge is the true edge of the unknown, this is the limit of what is documented and understood by any one person. Another edge is the edge of what can be commercially built. And another edge is the mainstream of what can be commercially built.
The true edge of the unknown is where academic research lives. The second edge, is where new products and businesses live. The third edge is where the vast majority of all research and development occurs.
The picture above shows these three edges. What it also shows is how the further you are at the limit of human knowledge the more what every else is doing appears less innovative, and the further you are towards the mainstream the more magical everything else everyone else is doing appears. And I’ll contend here that that’s the wrong view of the universe. And that a lot of our discussion about innovation is really driven by this relativistic picture. Folks on the right look towards the left and want to be more like the people on the left without realising that they don’t have to.
One of my recent, hypotheses, is that anyone who is on any one of those edges will see any new idea as obviously flowing from the context of the ideas surrounding them. The idea may be novel, but not entirely surprising. At the edge, everyone is looking at the same sets of problems and data, it’s the solutions that are unique. Every so often, there will be something that comes out of left field, but that is for the most part rare.
You don’t come up with a research idea in a vacuum. There is a field, the field has a set of problems that are of interest, and your ideas are vetted in the context of those problems of interest and the quality of the ideas you put forth.
As a concrete example, consider theoretical physics. I recently read this fascinating book by Leo Smolin that has a long diatribe about string theory but beneath that surface offers a unique perspective on how science is done. Essentially what theoretical physicists do is they come up with theories by looking at data, exploring math as they try to make fundamental insights about the universe. Every so often an idea will have enough merit that other theoretical physicists will take that idea and refine it further, until at some point in time the refinement results in an experiment that requires even more science to do that proves the theory. The whole process can take over 50 years from start to finish.
There are three essential edges, one edge is coming up with brand new fundamental ideas of the universe, another figuring out those ideas, and another figuring out how to turn them into experiments.
So where is innovation happening? In all three areas. Every person is moving the frontier of human knowledge a little bit further.
And yet, the guy who came up with the Higgs boson, is far more well known that the vast army of people who turned that idea into an experiment that could verify the result. I remember hearing an interview with the director of the experiment who had to explain to the NPR reporter how much science and engineering had to be created just to validate that theory.
So is Higgs the only innovator or is everyone else in between an innovator as well?
And that got me thinking that it’s all relative. Everyone is innovating at every step of the way, and our reward and star system makes it impossible for us to recognize all of those incremental innovations. We reward the guy with the fundamental idea with a Nobel prize and ignore everyone else who turned it into something real.
But so what? Well the reason this matters to me is that when my boss brings up the dreaded We need more innovation discussion, I worry that his idea is we need more Higgs’… And that by creating that bar for innovation we’ll essentially tell everyone that unless they come up with new fundamental ideas they don’t have anything of any value…
And so coming back to my discipline, I think of Google. Google is about a decade ahead of everyone else in data center infrastructure. You read their papers and think, my God they are magicians, and to a certain extent they are. More importantly they are also at the edge of what is commercially build-able and they, uniquely, have access to the data and problems that are worth solving in 10 years, and so are able to solve them first. For the rest of us struggling in the relativistic past, it can feel like we’re in the stone age, being blessed by these aliens with gifts from the future. But really what’s going on is that they are just seeing the problems before the rest of us have a chance.
And so if you’re in the same space as Google, you can feel worthless because you’re not innovating like them. They publish papers and industries emerge, you’re just trying to keep some MySQL DB’s from crashing over…
But I wonder, if at Google they feel the same way I do … I wonder if at Google the solutions are considered novel, and ingenious but not miraculous. Perhaps like Arthur C. Clarke said their sufficiently advanced technology appears like magic …
So then coming down to next edge which is the mainstream world of technology where you are not at the bleeding edge of the known or the commercially viable, is innovation possible?
And I think it is. Because innovation is about looking at data and the problems worth solving and solving them in a way that is novel. Now the novelty may not be that novel because you’re taking something someone else did and adapting it to your context, but that adaptation requires thought and some novel ideas.
But then isn’t that what almost all innovation is? Taking some ideas from some place, looking at some data, considering what the important problems are and trying to do something new?
So then if that’s the case, then the answer to my boss is relatively simple:
Yeah, I agree. Let’s look at some data, let’s look at the problems of interest and let’s try to solve them in some way that is different than how we were solving them yesterday.
And to my current boss’ credit, that’s where we landed. So if you’re job is to stop the MySQL DB’s from crashing and come up with a way of doing it that was better than the way things were working a day ago, then you just innovated and that’s cool.
But I can almost hear the voice of some smart engineer who says: but that’s not real innovation… real innovation is X or Y or Z … and I respond:
What is innovation is relative, and you can innovate on all edges and the only real innovation is the process I just described.
But I am a little bit dissatisfied with that answer. So I will amend it here.
Here’s what I will concede, although the innovations necessary to transform the Higgs’ theory into a workable innovation were vast and mysterious and magical, we have to give credit to those who do come up with the fundamental ideas because they are so rare. And in giving credit, we acknowledge their significance, but they should never, ever, ever get in the way of everyone innovating.