By Gunnar Branson
It is a common mistake to believe that innovation happens when someone comes up with a new idea. New ideas are a common occurrence – every day, people all over the world come up with great new ideas, new solutions and brilliant potential inventions that could possibly end poverty, build a successful company, or make peeling an orange much easier.
Experiments, though crucial to discovering what is possible and how something might be innovated, aren’t innovation. Prototypes and inventions aren’t innovation either, though they are an important step towards proving how innovation could happen.
Innovation doesn’t happen in the lab, the skunkworks or the strategy off-site. It doesn’t happen in the garage of a genius, nor does it happen when a government task force comes up with an innovation blueprint. Innovation might happen afterwards when the products of everyone’s labors are used by others, but there are quite a few good projects and initiatives that are easily forgotten in a few years.
What about all the patents? According to the U.S. Patent office, over 350,000 new patent applications are filed every year with less than 200,000 patents secured – but a patent is no guarantee of innovation. U.S. registered Patents in the last few years for the “Insect Death Ray”, the “Beerbrella”, (illustrated above), the “Flush Toilet for Dogs”, and the “Electro Shock Game”, are interesting, but can they be described as innovations? They may be useful as entries in the Museum of Obscure Patents, but I question if they are innovation.
According to Richard Maulsby, director of the office of Public Affairs for the US Patent and Trademark Office, “There are around 1.5 million patents in effect and in force in this country, and of those, maybe 3,000 are commercially viable.” (Karen E. Klein, “Avoiding the Inventor’s Lament,” Business Week, November 10, 2005)
If someone invents something that no one buys, did innovation occur?
A good analogue to that question, surprisingly, can be found in metaphysics. In the early eighteenth century, the philosopher and developer of “subjective idealism” George Berkeley introduced the idea of “To be is to be perceived”. His ideas are usually introduced with the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really fall?”
Rephrased by Charles Riborg Mann and George Ransom Twiss in their 1910 book,Physics, the question became easier to answer, “When a tree falls in a lonely forest, and no animal is nearby to hear it, does it make a sound?” When addressed as a physics question versus a metaphysical question, the answer is straightforward: Sound, as explained by Mann and Twiss, is made up of three things:
- A source of waves – such as a tree falling and creating vibrations as it hits the ground.
- A medium for those waves to travel – such as the air
- A receiver – such as an ear, which translates changes in air pressure into what animals perceive as “sound”
Without any animals around to hear the sound, there are only rippling changes in air pressure – no actual sound has been created.
Much like sound in a forest, innovation requires three things:
- A source of innovation – a person or a team that is motivated enough to not only to come up with good ideas – but to develop them and influence others to follow.
- A medium for their ideas to travel – such as the marketplace, writing, broadcasting, the Internet, classrooms, churches or any other gathering of people.
- Receivers – People pay for the innovation, who will change their lives, collaborate with the source, give up something in order to innovate. The more people who receive it, the more innovative it becomes.
And just like the theoretical forest with no animals to listen – if no one adapts the new idea, process, concept or machine – innovation has not occurred. Put another way, “If someone doesn’t pay for it, then it didn’t happen.”
Innovation then, happens when others do it. When customers buy a new technology, when a community stops doing what they did before and begins using a new rule of behavior, when an old paradigm is abandoned for a new one…when people make an invention their own – then innovation happens.
Innovation occurs, not when a new idea or invention is discovered, but when everyone else innovates. The great innovators, whether it was Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs or Henry Ford, were not necessarily the greatest inventors – but they were the most effective at getting others to innovate their lives around a new invention.
So how do they get everyone else to innovate?
Consider the notion of “Desire Lines”. Originally described by Gaston Bachelard in his 1958 book, The Poetics of Space, a desire line is a path left by people’s use of space. A particularly graphic example is the erosion created in the ground as people and animals walk over vegetation towards their destination. Most parks and college campuses have desire lines etched in the grass lawns – areas where people took short cuts off the carefully designed, planned and constructed concrete footpaths. Frustrated landscapers have long tried to keep people from destroying the grass and flowers by creating fences and other obstacles – but they rarely work, as people tend to simply walk around those obstacles, creating new desire lines.
Most of the roads in older communities were built on top of desire lines created by horses, people and carts as they made their way from destination to destination. Never a perfect geometric grid, these roads responded directly to the actual needs and behaviors of those who used them. Instead of fighting desire lines – it is possible to put them to use. Many designers will intentionally delay the building of walkways for several months and instead just plant grass around and between buildings. After a few months, the natural traffic of students will create desire lines in the grass that can be “read” as a plan for final concrete walkways. A wider path is built in the deeper areas of erosion and a smaller path in the light areas because the desire lines illustrate where more or less people walk.
By building on the desire line – it is possible to outsource the design to the hundreds of people who use the paths every day and unconsciously improvise their own course.
Desire lines can be found everywhere – not just on the ground. Whenever people move through their lives, interact with others, buy things, change things and improvise things, they leave a path. Everyone doesn’t always follow precisely the same path, but the desire lines can be read and understood.
A company that sells products to customers can often find desire lines right in their own balance sheet. A clear customer desire line was found when accounting discovered that one of their most profitable and steadily growing areas of business, despite falling new bike sales, was their after-market parts business. In other words, customers were changing their Harley Davidson motorcycles themselves, using parts provided by the company.
Up until the 1970’s, Harley Davidson focused primarily on supplying transportation to military and police organizations. The motorcycle gangs and tough guys that were modifying surplus bikes to their own needs were seen as an annoyance, and perhaps even a threat to their core business. Much as an eroded path through a field could threaten the beauty of a college campus.
Harley Davidson followed the desire line. They started to sell more customization, club membership and the romance of an old-fashioned, rebellious, and incredibly loud experience that had been developed by their customers. Motorcycle sales moved upwards, along with branded clothing, accessories, tattoos, and of course, after-market parts.
Harley-Davidson built their new business model on the desire lines laid down by their customers. Despite some difficulties in recent years, this remains one of the more innovative re-inventions of a company in great part because, instead of trying to stop the desire lines, they followed them and strengthened them.
Finding desire lines should not be confused with typical customer research or focus group work. Whenever a customer is asked, “what do you want?” the answer is always a version of “what I have, but cheaper, easier, or more.” As valuable as customer research is, it should never be relied upon solely to help companies and leaders chart an innovative path – largely because it reflects what exists today versus what could exist tomorrow.
One way to find a desire line in research is to ask customers or voters to fix something that bothers them. Here’s an idea for a new product – how would you make it work better? Here’s a new idea, how would you make it more attractive to others?
But even more powerful than asking questions is to watch behavior. The Internet in particular has become a very good tool for finding desire lines – by aggregating data on what people look at, how they interact with it, how they change it, how they talk about it and ultimately, how they make it their own.
The desire lines are even easier to find and harness on the Internet. Google, Wikipedia, Netflix, and now Twitter are all examples of on-line businesses that have figured out ways to harness the power of desire lines. As Eric von Hippel, author of “Democratizing Innovation” (NYT Monday October 26, 2009) put it, “Twitter’s smart enough, or lucky enough, to say, ‘Gee, let’s not try to compete with our users in designing this stuff, let’s outsource design to them.’” The same thing can be said of many newer on-line businesses. In an environment of transparency, where the behaviors of millions of people can be tracked and translated into data, the strange attractors become easier and easier to understand.
And if you can find the desire line – you can build new products, new services, new ideas that have already been “bought” by everyone else…that have already been innovated for you.