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Articles tagged “innovation”

Why good ideas sometimes fail


Poor ideas are often poor because the circumstances around them haven’t been fully explored.

As a result: we believe the idea itself is bad despite the fact the surrounding circumstances or environment are the factors that are actually bad.

We see examples of this often in history: the invention of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone only came to fruition after many other inventors tried doing something similar. One of the crucial elements their telephone systems lacked which Bell did not was the state of electromagnetic transmitters and receivers.

For example, 42 years before Bell was able to create an electronic, working telephone, Antonio Meucci had already created a working system of communicating between a stage and control room of a theatre using a pipe-telephone system.

In 1854, 22 years before Bell patented his telephone design, inventor Charles Bourseul had already imagined the ideal communication system. Bourseul wrote: “Suppose that a man speaks near a movable disc sufficiently flexible to lose none of the vibrations of the voice; that this disc alternately makes and breaks the currents from a battery: you may have at a distance another disc which will simultaneously execute the same vibrations…. It is certain that, in a more or less distant future, speech will be transmitted by electricity.”

Bourseul’s words describe almost perfectly what Bell later ended-up creating.

It’s worth noting that at nearly the exact same time (some argue even before) as Bell’s invention of the telephone, Elisha Gray created the same system but lost the patent to Bell and his team later on.

The telephone, as Meucci, Bourseul, Gray, Bell, and countless others before them envisioned, was absolutely a good idea. But it wasn’t until Gray and Bell had access to the modern technologies that would make the telephone so elegant to design, as well as ideally functional, that the idea came to fruition.

When considering our own ideas, we must consider the circumstances that allow it or hinder it to become a successful reality. When possible: changing the concept to meet what is possible today can turn the idea into more of a worthwhile endeavor.

A simpler example of this point is the concept of a time machine: Building a time machine is a poor idea because it’s not realistically feasible to do today. We simply don’t understand enough about time or space to create any type of machine that would allow us to travel through it.

It’s a fun idea, but certainly not a feasible one, therefore it would be ridiculous to dedicate oneself to working on a time machine today. Or would it?

By looking at the answers as to why an idea isn’t feasible, we can improve the idea itself as well as predict how it might change in the future.

Similar to how Bourseul predicted that the telephone which Bell would create years later would function through electromagnetic pulses.

To put this concept into practice we simply need to look at our own ideas, particularly ones we may have tried working on but failed.

When we look at those ideas and ask “why” they failed, we begin to shine light onto the circumstances that made it so. We may, in our exploration of reasons, realize the idea was actually good and worthwhile, simply unfeasible at the time.

Sometimes the process of asking and answering “why” means the idea evolves into something unexpected. As artists, inventors, and creators, we need to be open to following that rabbit hole wherever it may lead.

To look at our ideas and ask “why might this fail today?” we can either predict how they might succeed in the future, but we can also begin to see where we can make changes to the idea in order for it to succeed today.

When you’re faced with an idea that seems less-than-great, try asking yourself why it feels that way (then keep asking “why”). You’ll wind-up in a place where the idea makes more sense and is feasible.

Read this next: Creativity as intelligence and day dreaming

Dream photo by Moyan Brenn. Lego time machine photo by Alex Eylar.

Creativity doesn’t need motivation


Do you need motivation to be creative, or is it enough to simply be attentive?

It’s an interesting question to ask, particularly because the belief that you have to pursue creativity in order to achieve it has been propelled for so very long.

As Pablo Picasso once famously quipped: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

Worth clarification from Picasso is whether you need to be working towards creativity for insights to occur. My gut tells me you do not. To be creative is to be attentive, not busying yourself, fiddling away in desperate pursuit of new insights.

We know creativity occurs naturally without intent anyway.

There is ample anecdotal evidence of creativity sparking in individuals who weren’t looking for unique and valuable ideas in the first place. Eureka moments exist in a moment of break anyway, not while we’re intently focused on the problem(s) at hand. Motivation is not required criteria for creativity.

Everyday people often stumble on unique ideas, typically without realizing just how creative the ideas are.

For example, we realize how easy it is to simplify something in our life. We stumble on a solution to a weekend problem. We find a way. And we do it all without every stopping to think “That wasn’t just a good idea, it was a creative one.” The reason we may not stop to reflect on the creative value of every-day ideas is because we weren’t looking for them in the first place. We weren’t motivated to find a novel solution, but we were attentive enough to notice when they appeared. Creative insights occur regardless of motivation.

To be creative doesn’t mean we must be working on a creative task or problem, instead we simply need to be working (on any problem) and be attentive to what it is we’re doing or could be doing. I like to believe that’s what Picasso meant when he said inspiration must find you working.

Attention is a powerful asset for us as creative workers to have, regardless of the work we are (or are not) doing.

We therefore don’t need to seek out creativity, we simply need to get out of our own way and let the ideas find us.

Illustration by Chris Florence.

“Be willing to try things, even if you aren’t too confident they’ll work. Sometimes you’ll get lucky.”

The five rules of inventing from the man who reinvented the frisbee and single serve coffee

Posted at 9:41 am

  1. Why is this a project to begin with?
  2. What purpose does the work serve, what is the end-goal?
  3. Who needs to be involved, and who is the project ultimately for?
  4. When does it need to be completed and when are the project milestones (if there aren’t any, make some)?
  5. Where will the work appear and where will it be worked on?
  6. How will these objectives be accomplished?

Before you start any project, answer these six questions

Posted at 12:39 pm

“Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity, was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information.”

Jonathan Fields in Maximize Your Potential

Posted at 8:23 am

Yes, luck is an essential aspect of innovation


How exactly was a research physicist able to create the modern World Wide Web?

It seems like such a strange connection, physics and a wold-wide Internet. Yet, in the early 1980s, a London man named Tim Berners-Lee was able to create the modern-day web. By encouraging networks to interlink with hypertext (a computer text format) and web “domains,” Berners-Lee was able to take a very wide-reaching and difficult-to-use network that represented the pre-modern Internet and turn it into an early World Wide Web.

Realistically the web we love today was always a “bound-to-happen” thing. Anyone could have come up with the idea of connecting the virtual text language with the existing transmission protocol (TCP) and domain names.

But Tim Berners-Lee – again: a physicist working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research at the time – was the one who did it.

“I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to TCP and DNS ideas and – ta da! – the World Wide Web,” Berners-Lee said.

Why him?

Partially because he was in the right place (a global research company that had a need to communicate across the world) at the right time (a time in history where the technology capable of creating the web: hypertext, TCP and DNS, already existed). Berners-Lee was lucky in that sense.

We can see extremely similar cases through-out all major, historical innovations.

The iPhone has revolutionized the web countless billions across the globe communicate, and yet the smart phone as a technology had already existed for years before it. Apple was lucky in that they had access to the technology (the phone, wireless Internet, touch-screen technology) and the right audience (millions of potential customers who adored their iPods) to make the iPhone a success.

It’s a similar story for the advent of computers, automobiles, airplanes, air conditioning, silicone, satellites, radio, photography, microwaves, and so on.

When Wilbur and Orville Wright became the first humans to fly for 12 seconds using a propeller-drawn aircraft in 1903 they were immensely lucky too.

Lucky that they had access to motorized parts that had been invented before their time, lucky that they had all of the knowledge of those who had experimented with glided flight before them too. Lucky that everything allowing them to create the historical “Flyer” not only existed, but that they were in the right place and time to utilize the parts as necessary.

It’s not all about luck, of course.

All innovation requires that the inventor(s) be aware of the possibilities (like Tim Berners-Lee seeing the need for a world-wide Internet network), then act on them (like the Wright brothers putting in countless hours to make their idea work).

So yes, luck is certainly an aspect of innovation. There’s no getting around that requirement, it seems.

However, we – you and I – can do things in order to increase the likelihood of our encountering these lucky situations.

For example, while Thomas Edison is accredited as having invented the electric light bulb, electric power stations, movie cameras, and more, the reason he was able to do any of those things was because he forcefully put himself into the right place and time.

Edison filed well over 1,000 patents during his career.

The Wright brothers found their luck with their airplane after years of diligently working on bicycles and even a printing press they designed and used to print a daily newspaper.

Tim Burners-Lee had spent much of his life not only studying physics, but working with computer models and technology (like that of hypertext) in order to communicate with the teams he was helping. That work put him into a position where it would have been very difficult to not see a world-wide Internet.

In all of these scenarios the lesson is the same: luck plays a part in innovation, but it’s those who work to be in the right place and right time who get lucky. Then it’s up to those who find themselves in such circumstances to act!

As Edison famously stated: “What it boils down to is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

If you want to innovate, place yourself into areas where it’s most likely to happen. The best way to do that is work, tinker, diligently explore areas of your work where opportunities can make themselves known.

I’ll end with this quote that I regularly turn to when I work. From Steven Johnson’s flawlessly good book Where Good Ideas Come From:

“The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”