Like it or not, all successful innovators share at least one characteristic with Blanche Dubois. We rely on interactions with strangers to drive our best ideas. Thanks to Tim Kastelle, I found this recent work by Jared Diamond, who uses anthropology to demonstrate that people need interactions to create and sustain new technologies.
Diamond uses the example of Tasmania, which is an isolated island off the coast of an isolated continent. At one point in history, Tasmania and Australia were connected. At that point in time the people living in both locations had roughly the same technologies and advancement. As the sea levels rose, there were far fewer people on Tasmania who lost interaction with a relatively small population of Australians. When first “discovered” by Europeans, Tasmanians lacked many of the technology innovations that their distant relatives on Australia had created during the separation. Since neither the Australians nor the Tasmanians had boats that would cover the 130 mile distance between there, there was no interaction. In fact, the Tasmanians at some point lost or abandoned some of the tools that they had when they were in contact with the Australians.
Diamond suggests that it is at the point of contact with other cultures, other people, other civilizations that innovation and technical advancement occurs, and uses the Tasmanians as an example of the opposite case. Totally isolated with a very small population, they actually regressed in many ways and did not create new innovative solutions or technologies. On the other hand, in many places throughout history where there are many interactions between cultures and people, we see innovation flourishing, spreading, being adopted and improved.
Interesting history lesson, but what does it say about innovation in a business?
First, any firm that doesn’t engage with its customers, partners and markets will likely fall behind and regress. Isolation from your customers is not only risky, it’s possibly deadly. Yet we lock people away from conferences, tradeshows and opportunities for interaction. Instead of resisting opportunities for interaction, firms should create them. We need far more interaction, with people who like us, and people who don’t. With people who have similar outlooks and people who don’t. Instead most people in most organizations rarely interact with a customer, and those that do – customer support and sales – have very skewed notions of what customers and prospects want and need.
Second, perhaps we can finally leave the myth of the “lone innovator” behind. In the US we herald people like Thomas Edison, whom we are often led to believe toiled for hours in his lab alone. Wrong. Edison surrounded himself with a wide range of people and constantly interacted with representatives from a number of the emerging industries. He employed a large number of people in his lab and forced cross-pollination of ideas from several important technologies and industries. Good innovators rarely work alone. They need the demands and conflict of a market to test their ideas and introduce new perspectives.
Third, in a tightly contested market good ideas will propagate quickly, and in an isolated market ideas may never propagate at all. This means that in our society and economy, with 24×7 news sources, social media and other communication tools, a new idea that has merit will be recognized and adopted fairly quickly. It also means that a new idea has a fairly short shelf life. When the Europeans landed in Tasmania, the natives there were using the same technologies as had been used by their forefathers when Tasmania and Australia separated, since there was no interaction. Today, new ideas spread like wildfire and are quickly adopted, improved and copied. The entire product life cycle has shrunk dramatically as more participants enter the market and compete. Therefore we need a robust innovation cycle tied closely to a robust product development cycle that can identify the best ideas and rapidly convert them into new products or services. Or we can hold on to existing technologies and isolate ourselves from today’s economy, like the Tasmanians who didn’t have the ability to start fires when the Europeans arrived in 1642.
Innovation isn’t just about having smart people or good processes. Innovation happens at the margin where markets, people or ideas intersect. We all rely on the kindness of strangers when we innovate, and if we fail to interact, we will fail to innovate.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.