A Critical Choice Regarding Innovation

This morning, via twitter, I came across two contrasting blog posts, one from JP Rangaswami (@jobsworth), and one from Martin Varsavsky (@martinvars), that seemed to me to sum up the very essence of the problem I’ve been calling out in my “work on stuff that matters” talks.

In Faster Horses in the Age of Co-Creation, JP argues that Henry Ford’s maxim, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said ‘faster horses’ “, is wrong, that the essence of innovation today is giving the customer what he or she wants:

That customer knows that part of what she wants is to be able to figure out what she wants. She is both consumer and producer, a partner in the process of co-creating value. The senior partner in the process of co-creating value.

So today, if she asks for faster horses, we don’t build her a car. We need to find out whether she meant a roan or a piebald or a chestnut or a bay. When she tries the piebald out and decides she wanted the roan, that’s what she gets. Our job is to make it easier for her to buy or rent or lease the horse, to make it safer for her, to make it more convenient for her in terms of where the horse is to be picked up and dropped. To make sure the horse is well, that the riding equipment is securely and safely fastened.

Now, to be sure, JP is making a valid point, namely that in consumer marketing, we need to listen to and empower the customers, not try to ram products down their throat.

But it’s unfortunate that JP used the Henry Ford story to make his point, because in so doing he set up a straw man that ignored what Ford was really saying: that breakthrough innovations don’t come from market research, even from “web 2.0” market research via deep customer engagement. They come from the singular vision of an inventor pursuing his or her own passion, cutting a Gordian knot that others simply accept as “the way things are.”

The Wright brothers would never have gotten to the airplane by listening to customers; Henry Ford would never have sought to put an automobile in every household; Tim Berners-Lee would never have gotten to the World Wide Web; Jimmy Wales wouldn’t have started Wikipedia; and Jack Dorsey wouldn’t have started twitter, where I became part of this particular conversation.

That’s why Martin’s post is so poignant, and so important. Where is the Future We Were Promised? he asks:

Five years into the 20th century, Einstein was living his Annus Mirabilis. Where is our patent office today? Who is our Einstein? Are we the first generation in many years incapable of true innovation? And let’s not just talk about things as complicated as the theory of relativity. I remember complaining about the drill when I was young, and my dentist telling me that when I was grown up he would have to find another job because we would have a vaccine against cavities. Where is this vaccine against cavities? Where are the cures for catarrh and AIDS? Where is that future devoid of poverty in which robots were going to do everything for people and we were going to dedicate ourselves to art and culture?

Unfortunately, when I look around me today, during the end of 2008, I see humanity leading an unsustainable life based on technology that should already be obsolete. I believe that it is time for us to engage in some serious self-criticism and start to invest in science again, because the list of unsolved problems grows longer every day. If we continue on like this, not only are we not going to have a future, but we are going to end up without a present.

Like JP Rangaswami, Martin overstates the case a bit. I believe that there is some truly amazing innovation happening on the net, in alternative energy, and in life sciences, and that we are going to wake up one day and be blown away by the future we’re creating. And oddly enough, many of those innovations will come from harnessing the collective intelligence of all those people that JP says we should be listening to. But it won’t just be to give them what they want; it will be to put them to work in new ways, getting them to contribute to an inventor’s vision, not just to customize it for their better enjoyment. Breakthroughs in speech recognition and automatic translation, for example, are driven by the data we all contribute; similar effects will soon be felt in personalized medicine, robotics, and many other areas.

But I also believe that the choice is stark: just give people want they want, leading us deeper into a consumer culture whose very financial fabric is wearing thin, or seek out big, hard problems that other people take for granted as unsolvable, and remake the world.

In a talk I attended many years ago, Joseph Campbell said that the Knights of the Round Table were the archetypal myth of Western civilization, the idea that each of us, alone, must go off into the deepest, darkest part of the forest, populated by monsters, on a quest to make the world a better place.

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  • I’m feeling a bit bad about beating up on JP Rangaswami, worried that I used him as a straw man in the very way that he used Henry Ford. Because of course, in the area of what Clayton Christensen calls “sustaining innovations,” JP is totally right. There is a new game in town, and one that involves engaging with the customer as co-creator.

    But Henry Ford wasn’t talking about sustaining innovation, but disruptive innovation. And that’s why I took umbrage at his diminishment of Ford’s profound insight.

    And when I came across Martin’s post, I thought, “What a wonderful pair of bookends to a discussion that requires our most strenuous engagement.”

    I hope that you’ll read both JP and Martin’s posts, and come to your own conclusions. Also, as I was posting this piece, Dale Dougherty was posting a piece of his own here on radar. Entitled The Visible Hand, it’s another great thread in this discussion.

  • So let’s embrace this logic. If this was the case, as I am fully willing to suggest is reasonable, then we should also be able to extrapolate that democracy will never be innovative.

  • Very nice. Agreed 100%. Don’t worry about beating up on JP, he can handle it :-)

    You can go on to connect the two posts a bit more, by speculating that part of why Martin has the feeling he has is precisely because too many young people are acting in the way JP encourages.


  • Paula (Rotkapchen) –

    Not so. Democracies still have leaders. Look at how Lincoln or Roosevelt changed the course of this country.

    Every new innovation ultimately requires persuasion, or else it languishes in the lab.

    This post is just about where we start the process.

  • Kevin Roberts in the book Lovemarks says
    “Innovation is something that changes the life of the customer. It changes the life of the customer in some way, or the world in which the customer experiences things. That’s innovation.”
    If we take this as a starting point then a slightly faster horse is unlikely to change our life.. certainly not for long; the car did make a considerable impact… I would say after working in that at one end of the spectrum say in fast moving consumer goods for 15 years the emphasis is on evolution (with occasional game-changer innovation that the consumer agrees is a game-changer) whilst transportation is at another end… I worked on aero-engine design and engineering for 15 years too… my first project was the big fan engine that changed transport for the customer for 40 years.. think Boeing 747… cheatper holidays further from home… seems we need context and perspective to really think clearly about innovation.

  • It could be that we are still suffering post modernist depression – that science and technology have introduced their own problems to the world – are we any better off as a result.

    We mustn’t forget that science and technology operate within the discourse of society and reflect the society.

    We have become risk adverse in many aspects of life and over manage as a result – I remember hearing that a NASA engineer saying that we will never be able to get to the moon now as the program is run by managers rather than engineers.

    My feeling is that the big issues in the pipeline (energy, pollution, resource shortages) will demand bold innovation of the type that has happened in the past.

    The innovator must operate like a designer – a designer has a brief from the client but also has his own ideas – it becomes a combination – we can only move on from where we are,

  • Sorry Tim, I stopped reading this article when you mentioned Twitter in the same breath as the Wright brothers and Henry Ford.

  • Josh –

    The point was not to suggest an equivalence of importance between Jack Dorsey and the Wright brothers or Henry Ford, but to suggest that they were not following @jobsworth’s advice. There are only so many Wright or Ford scale innovations, but the principle applies across the spectrum.

    And I thought twitter was relevant because this conversation started on twitter.

  • I am a hughe fan of twitter these days, but they have a very long way to go before you can compare/mention them with people who have created industries, not companies, like Ford.

    my comments at http://www.commentino.com/orim

  • Ok, I can see that then.

    I really think innovation comes down to chance, timing, and market age / setup. A lot of times its by accident, and I think back to what Kevin Kelly pointed out in Out of Control — that equilibrium is death.

    Markets are constantly shifting (and will continue to be so), so you never know what combination of variables will prove to be explosive in the market.

  • Michael R. Bernstein

    The thing about disruptive innovations is, you don’t necessarily get the ones you expect. It’s not just vaccines against tooth-decay, but such iconic anticipated innovations as jetpacks, food-pills, and videophones that we’re missing. Note that for the latter, we already have all the necessary technology (and have for about a decade or so), but the barriers turn out to be social and usability issues.

    And even for innovations that we *do* more-or-less anticipate like cellphones, disruptions still come out of left field like cameraphones (which, BTW, is now only the third mainstream ‘convergence device’ after the clock-radio and the brief reign of the calculator-watch).

    Because innovations (disruptive or otherwise) are not only contingent on previous innovations as infrastructure, but contingent on needs as well, we cannot predict the shape of future innovations. Consider the complex of technologically created needs that was filled by the creation of the TV dinner.

    Ultimately, I think that we *will* largely be giving consumers what they want, but that those wants will themselves shift over time from the material to the immaterial, in large part because only immaterial goods and services can truly be duplicated just-in-time to satisfy unexpected surges in demand.

    I believe that many of the hard problems that businesses will be trying to solve in the next few decades will be on the order of trying to satisfy those same surges in demand for material goods, or replacing material goods with immaterial equivalents. Along the way much of our remaining mass-production infrastructure will be dismantled or transformed.

  • Josh Perfetto

    I don’t think there’s any question that people want a “vaccine” against cavities, cure for AIDS, etc., and thus the reason we don’t have these things isn’t an undue over-focusing on what the consumer wants. And there is certainly a very healthy amount of web innovation going on today that the consumer doesn’t appear to have any interest in, so it’s hard to see how the web is too consumer-centric.

    I think the reason you see so much activity around web innovation is that it is highly accessible (wealth of information available, you need only a PC to get started). The very nature of the medium ensures that innovations propagate rapidly, which also makes the medium extremely receptive to incremental innovations. These factors also present many opportunities where you can be successful after a few months if that is your goal. All of these factors attract a lot of people to the web, which is fine, and we’re all the better for it.

    But not every web innovator would be a Henry Ford if they simply worked on a different problem. Not everyone wants to spend years working on a problem at great expense that may not even pay off in the end. I don’t think it makes sense to be critical of people for not making that choice; there are far more people who are not innovating at all anyways.

    Instead, I would look at the conditions that made the web so ripe for innovation and then seek to re-create that elsewhere. Obviously a big part of that is the investment in the basic research which gave birth to the Internet and then web after so many years and which we neglect today. But also look at other issues like accessibility. You cannot yet develop a vaccine with the effort that you can develop a website, but when we get there we will find, to paraphrase Obama, the innovation we seek.

  • MR

    I like your post and I think it highlights that both book ends have merit. Innovation has to be ambidexturous in that we are innovators, developers, designer etc have to provide ways for our doing what we do better and more efficiently without always completely turning the industry on its head, however the big bangs at the right time and place – the things that really catapult us into a new direction (generally take an Einstein or 2 of them in a garage to create) are the golden egg. Too many big bangs would give us all a heart attack I’d think!

  • Technological innovation has never solved a problem – it only changes the relationship of the tradeoffs.

    Martin says: “Unfortunately, when I look around me today, during the end of 2008, I see humanity leading an unsustainable life based on technology that should already be obsolete.”

    I look around and see a continent that supports well over 300 million people in relative luxury. This same space supported perhaps 1/3 of that number 100 years ago.

    Certainly we may be living on the edge of catastrophe – but our ancestors would find our angst disgusting.

    They might even quote Edgar Lee Masters:

    “Degenerate sons and daughters,
    Life is too strong for you—
    It takes life to love Life.”

  • It’s not clear to me that the the two blog subjects are in any way antithetical.

    Rangaswami is arguing that consumers are getting a say in what they get. We get this in the huge choice that industrial society has made available. We get it in our ability to influence those offerings (von Hippel) and, as you celebrate in Make, we even get to make our own stuff. As we move towards getting fabs, this last will become increasingly common – the ultimate in mass customization. Over my lifetime, it seems to me that there has been, and continues to be, and explosion in both new goods and services with new types of jobs and work to match.

    Varsavsky is really arguing about something very different and not related to innovation, be it by individuals or larger groups. He is saying two things. First that changes we anticipated never happened, and second, that radical changes in technology that we saw in the earlier C20th, seem rarer today. As regards the former, it is not clear that expected innovations ever made sense, often they look very quaint today. As regards the second, there is the issue of path dependency in our technological and organizational choices. With time, existing infrastructure and technologies become harder to change because of reinforcing factors maintaining those choices. Innovation is naturally going to work better where the field is open. This is much like rapid evolution in new environments, where competition is low and new forms can appear to fill open niches. While some expected innovations didn’t happen, many unexpected ones did, and continue to do so.

  • Great post Tim! A couple of comments. You said:

    “But I also believe that the choice is stark: just give people want they want, leading us deeper into a consumer culture whose very financial fabric is wearing thin, or seek out big, hard problems that other people take for granted as unsolvable, and remake the world.”

    I think one of the ways that we’re going to be able to solve these big, unsolvable problems is by leveraging the existing “consumer culture.” What I mean is, we need to start building systems that solve the problem, without forcing people to do anything (or very little) different than what they are already doing. Change takes a long time for most people, so why not figure out how to leverage their pre-existing habits to solve whatever problem we’re trying to solve.

    Regarding Josh Patterson’s comment, “I really think innovation comes down to chance, timing, and market age / setup,” I respectfully disagree. Chance and timing have nothing at all to do with how well a particular innovation does in the marketplace. Like building a successful company, it all comes down to execution!

    There are a million great ideas that float through peoples heads every day, but most of them never make it any further than a fleeting thought. Conversely, there are lots of innovations that have successfully been brought to market almost entirely because they had a strong team who knew how to execute backing them. I mean, did we really need the pet rock?

    My two cents worth. Thx for reading!

  • Som additional thoughts and hypothesis:
    It is worth remembering Maslow for the context of our innovative offers. If we think of a three-layer cake then we start at the bottom with material needs then the social needs and the top layer is personal growth needs… As we eat our new innovative cake it will have different layer thicknesses… Ford will have offered much on the bottom, some in the middle and a little on top. The context now is very different and a person wanting a better horse is probably wanting a decent bottom layer a good middle layer and a pretty substantial top layer… they want to become a better rider who is admired by their friends… etc.
    It is the hidden needs that a customer never asks foe that result in breakthrough products… so iPod+iTunes+ITMS become a product that satisfies at the bottom-layer (there are tastier bottom-layers), is great in the middle and fantastic at the top.. in combination the Apple-layer cake is a must-have that is the cake to beat… on all layers.
    So context is interesting.. Ford’s context is different from a horse-breeder’s even if the want is the same … the need is different… incrementalism tends to wants and break-through tends to needs.

  • Tim,

    Great post, as usual. I have a point to make about your language, however, that I hope contributes to the discussion.

    When did innovation replace the other i-word we had in the last century, invention? When you’re talking about the Wright Brothers, you are not talking about innovation, which I think refers to a new way to do something old, or an improved step in a process, you’re talking about invention. Reducing the number of olives in an in-flight salad can count as innovation. Inventing the flying machine is something different. XEROX PARC invented stuff. The innovators picked a lot of their inventions up and made a lot of money, which is a process I think we understand well. But the invention part I would argue we understand less well.

    My comment may read as picky, but I think the distinction between the two words’ meaning does matter, especially when we argue over how market-driven the creative process should be. I offer this formulation: Innovators succeed when they follow markets. Inventors succeed when they follow dreams.

  • Michael,

    I really like your point about distinuishing between invention and innovation. If our technological progress follows the punctuated equilibrium model of biological evolution, then there are short periods of chaotic invention where rule books are thrown out, then longer periods of innovation where designs are improved or adapted. And I think different people and different cultures tend to favour one or the other. The mad (frustrated) inventor rarely gets recognition on investment, innovation is a much safer bet.

  • Well done Tim!
    I’m really enjoying this post and the comments…they are making me think deeply about things… Michael Phoebe.. did Wright Brothers invent anything or were they successful integrators of technologies that resulted in a successful manned, powered flight which then resulted in paying passengers and orders for improved models? Think of Rutan’s innovation in manned suborbital flight (The Xprize winner) that has led to Richard Branson’s investment in Virgin Galactic. I think of invention as science (Dirac and Schrodinger, Einstein, Watson and Crick). Wrote on the science into products journey here http://snipurl.com/5d2w2
    and Michael Schrage explored the topic here http://snipurl.com/5d2ym
    My big fear is that instead of debating what all these words mean we should be looking for ways to improve our lives both at work and play and in a sustainable way. If that means that we need new infrastructure we must demand it through blogs, social networks etc. If we need incremental improvements to rejuvenate our jaded souls then that is good too… Phoebe is right when she says we need small steps to improve a radical innovation.
    We are all right just seeing “it” through different lenses (), )( , |), etc.

  • Kurt Cagle

    Economic conditions play into the innovation/invention discussion as well. I’ve noticed that in general the truly inventive technologies – the ground breaking ones that shatter existing paradigms – are almost invariably created at a time when the profit motive is low. The Apple II was a profound invention, building a form factor computer that was intended to be put together and used by non-technical people. This took place in the doldrums of the 1970s. The web server and browser were first created to solve a problem of content management in a research facility in the late 1980s, and so forth.

    I’m not sure that I’d call the iPod a radical new invention, other than from a form factor standpoint – the idea of a digital portable radio had been floated for a while, but you had to have a dedicated facility and some money to burn to put together something like the iPod, and the big question was not whether it would work but whether it was worth the investment from an adoption standpoint before others jumped in.

    Technological invention slows down in boom times because no one wants to take the risk of being first and being proven wrong (or have competitors leapfrog you if you’re almost right). In recessions, on the other hand, you’re not shooting for the great American novel – you’re satisfying your own curiosity because the cost of being wrong is low.

    I’m coming to believe that while money may spur innovation, it is absolutely deadly to invention.

  • Daniel

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for this great post. Unfortunately it seems that corporations are only investing in safe innovation, or betting on the faster horses.

    I am wondering how one can bring disruptive innovation into life in today’s corporate cultures? Or does the inventor have to be a professor propellerhead and make a fool of himself?



  • Jon Udell

    From a “stuff that matters” perspective, have you heard this talk?



    He’s generalizing the X Prize model to create a series of prizes for, e.g., a manufacturable >100MPG car.

    Very interesting strategy for combining philanthropy, entrepeneurship, competition, and marketing, in a very focused way, to attack big problems that matter. It’s all about leveraging a (relatively) small amount of prize money to attract investment, motivate teams of competitors, generate publicity, and accomplish a result.

  • Michael Harrison –

    I adore your formulation:

    “Innovators succeed when they follow markets. Inventors succeed when they follow dreams.”

    I may just have to turn that into a whole new post.

  • i don’t think you need to be so politically correct. you were dead right. JP is smarter than that; he knew what he was doing; you called him on it. fair ball.

  • I don’t DIRECTLY blame Wall Street and a quarter-driven business mindset, but it does contribute to more “fluffication” instead of real innovation. Additionally, the true costs of patenting make it financially impossible for typical inventor types to become tomorrow’s Edisons.

    Some thoughts on innovation/invention:




  • I responded to JP’s post on Faster Horses with a rather lengthy blog post. Of course, I don’t have a readership to speak of, but JP did read it.


    I think I took a different tack on the whole issue than the other responses I’ve heard.

  • river

    Hi Tim,

    It feels weird calling you that. Like I should call you Mr. O’Reilly for being the publisher of some of my favorite books. (I always look for engravings of animals at the bookstore when I have a computer question!) I also read your blog occasionally (in the interest of full disclosure). I have a non-animal book on my shelf with a big, old drill on it’s cover, called “Unix Power Tools” It’s one of my favorites!

    I am from Indiana. And I am at my wide computer screen tonight participating in a new world. We have a new message from the top of the largest democratic network voting curve since democracy became popular. And I am writing from the best and cheapest quad-core that Intel has marketed publicly to date! The old Q6600.

    There was a form on change.gov that caught my eye like an x-acto knife recently. It was titled “American Moment” > “Share your Vision” The president-elect was asking me to what? Tell him my secretest secrets? He was straight up giving me a text box for typing in. That was weird.

    But I’ve been thinking about it. Maybe I’ll take a chance on running some stuff by you first.

    There are a few ideas I’ve kept in my back pocket for several years. I obviously haven’t done anything important with them as a lower-middle class American with severely limited resources. I’m just a Dad without a Google Engineering Team. But every time I go to sleep at night and dream about tomorrow, they are still so close I can taste them!

    Very quickly…

    1. the Wildernet – A Google map of Earth-space that is reserved, preserved, and protected from humanity. I had a Black Elk moment a few years ago walking in my kitchen. I wasn’t in my kitchen anymore, I was just there, down a rabbit-hole, in Wildernet. A world where green networks connected and ringed every city on the globe. It’s like a rails-to-trails on steroids! An Appalaician Trail between every Hamlet that condenses and confines the creativity of high-density villages to rupture!

    2. MMODS – Massively multiplayer online design software. Back in the college of Architecture I was a hand-drawing design snob. I would not go to the Halon-protected Intergraph lab. Then I went to work later in the real world, got slammed with an AIX workstation, found books to help me teach everyone in my department just in time. And left them after mapping their campus in Radiance for pennies on the dollar.

    3. liquid calendar software.
    daily time management that conforms to you fluidly.

    4. settle file format issues once and for all!

    5. Naturalistic Interfaces with weather. How many bits are in the Wind? The undercurrent of my waters feels abnormal! You have to wake up and leave the Movie now because there is a fire!