What drives innovation?


Image Source: http://www.jeffdelp.com/2011/07/05/21st-century-educating-part-3-innovation/

We are in the process of converting my 79 year old mother to a smart phone and as I watch her learn and ultimately embrace this new technology, it got me thinking about innovation.  What drives our great innovators to constantly create and challenge the status quo?


As a species, we are restless.  And innovators are more restless than the general population.  This restlessness manifests itself as a need to tinker, to improve, to always look for something better, faster, smaller, bigger, more reliable, longer lasting – whatever limitation exists, the restless innovator wants to conquer. For an example of this restlessness, we can look to aviation.  On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers flew the first powered flight.  Their dissatisfaction with the attempts at that time led them to envision flight differently and they were ultimately successful.  But the human condition of restlessness persists and we now have a plane  whose cargo bay is longer than that historic first flight in Kittyhawk, NC. (The first flight was 120 feet, the cargo bay is 143 feet). This quote from Thomas Edison sums it up: “Restlessness is discontent — and discontent is the first necessity of progress.”


Great innovators also have a tremendous capacity to dream and to envision things that don’t exist today. We recently spent time at Walt Disney World in Florida and learning about Walt Disney is an education in imagination.  He wanted his animated characters to be be more lifelike, so he worked with his team on the multiplane camera. His imagination certainly didn’t stop there. After trying to find places to entertain his daughters, he envisioned a place ‘where adults and children could have fun together’ and that led to the groundbreaking achievement of Disneyland in California.  But still, his imagination couldn’t rest.  His plans for Disney World, and specifically EPCOT demonstrate his relentless pursuit of innovation and imagination.  EPCOT stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow and Disney’s hope was that it would inspire corporations to improve aspects of urban living.


There are many different words we could use for this concept – focus, fearlessness, drive – it is the ability for true innovators to keep going, despite set-backs and distractions.  When we look at the great innovators – Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, as examples – all have faced tremendous set-backs and early failures.  They seem to have never broken stride, they picked up the lessons from each attempt and carried it forward into the next version or idea.  Henry Ford once stated, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Great innovators also have to focus, not only on what they will pursue, but be decisive about the things they were not going to pursue. Steve Jobs once said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.” (Apple Worldwide Developers’ Conference, 1997)  Focus is a critical element of the tenacity that separates true innovators from the rest of the population.

Innovation propels us forward, helps us improve our quality of life and stretches the mind into new, uncharted territories.  I cannot wait to see what the next great innovations are and I think we human beings are restless enough, imaginative enough and tenacious enough to create inventions that today, we cannot even fathom.

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