Monday, June 11, 2007

Innovation Away From the Ball

From my Mac PowerBook Thesaurus:



No appliance manufacturer can survive without an ongoing commitment to innovation.

change, alteration, revolution, upheaval, transformation, metamorphosis, breakthrough; new measures, new methods, modernization, novelty, newness; creativity, originality, ingenuity, inspiration, inventiveness; informal a shake up.

Why does it take so many words to describe something that, like pornography, we all know when we see it? For quite a while, I use to read all of the business articles and blog posts I could find on innovation. I quit reading them a few months ago. It's not that I am not interested in innovation. I think what has happened is that I am coming to believe that getting a real bead on innovation requires some distance, some perspective. That's why the older the innovation the more it informs my thinking. That's why I write about these anecdotes from history. What passes for innovation today is often just marketing hype. "New and Improved", says the ad or the label. Virtually nothing that is advertised today will be remembered as so much as a footnote in the histories of innovation that are written a hundred years from now.

There are themes that run through the stories here that intrigue me: action at the fringes, a near mono-maniacal focus on bringing an idea to life, constant nay-saying by detractors and outright hatred of the innovator by the establishment. These and many more are the constants that run through stories that are as old as the Greeks. Looking for these tattletales is a better indicator of where true innovation is taking place than any amount of writing in today's business press.

I remember a lecture I heard a while back by the essayist, Roger Rosenblatt. He was talking about paying attention by "looking away from the ball", using basketball as his analogy for life. By "looking away from the ball" he meant that you could see where the game was going rather than where it was at that moment. I think the same holds true for innovation. You have to look away to see the future. But like most things in your peripheral vision, it is only marginally visible. The trick is to learn to trust what you see out of the corner of your eye.

The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.
- Winston Churchill

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