Innovation: The Myth of the Wheel

[May 4, 2010]

Over time, “innovation” has become a worship word in American business. If the clamor for it in digital space is more strident than in some other scenarios, it may be because no one seriously believes the medium has actually hit its stride. Underlying our manic celebration of innovation is the sense that the mother lode of profit and consumer engagement has not yet been struck.

Trouble is, digital space already has an established legacy of yesterday’s best practice. You can still hear remnants of “fold anxiety” creep into any discussion of page design. “People won’t click, people won’t scroll” goes the boogeyman’s mantra that keeps Web Design buried tight under its covers when the lights go out.

Like the license plate games that kept kids busy on long car trips before portable DVD players, the game of “Spot the Study” also quickly negates any attempt to move away from the status quo. “I read a study that says…” the game begins. “I read it, too,” goes the ritual response, “and I know another study that goes further…”

At the end of the game, everyone agrees that the only way to handle a given problem is the tested and proven way. The discussion is even capped with its own variation on ite missa est: “Besides, there’s no sense reinventing the wheel.”

Circular arguments against change.
Ah the wheel: quintessential metaphor for innovative thinking. Fact is, however, the wheel has been reinvented countless times. A gear is a wheel reinvented to make machinery more efficient. A pre-digital clock face is a wheel reinvented as a time keeper. A DVD disc…

Without the realization that invention and innovation are both dynamic and self-renewing, nothing would ever change in American society. We’d all be washing our clothes by beating them against rocks at the nearest body of water. No sense reinventing the rock.

Hence, if we value innovation, we have to accept its essential nature. Innovation forces people to reexamine their belief systems, opening up closet doors precariously shut tight against the avalanche of unexamined ideas pressing down on them.

And, of course, sometimes innovative thinking fails.

We’ve all experienced the hive mentality that sweeps the conference table when a “great idea” swiftly gains acceptance in a euphoria of self-realization. It’s times like these that give innovation a bad name. That’s a shame, because this fall from grace is based on a deep misunderstanding.

A leap of faith with a planned trajectory.
Innovation, the genuine article, isn’t a magic mantra. It arises from a delicate balance of imaginative leaps and the careful, methodical working out of an underlying premise. Contrary to popular belief, the race to innovate can only be won with the equal cooperation of the tortoise and the hare. Einstein, you’ll notice, didn’t just have a flash of inspiration about the nature of space and time. He also did the math.

Encouraging true innovative thinking requires a paradigm shift in your business process. It’s not enough to scour the competitive landscape and look over the shoulders of Success. You have to believe enough in your own team to let them make a leap of faith. Caution: Innovation implies risk and risk implies investment. Companies who sell themselves as the loss leader, followers of the “Crazy Eddie” acquisition model, can forget about innovation.

If you do, however, want to blaze new paths, remember: Innovation doesn’t necessarily manifest itself all at once in game-changing glory. Often, innovation occurs in waves, leading from one bold leap to another. It’s hard to imagine TV without radio, or radio without the telegraph—not because their technologies are necessarily similar, but because the concept and social impact of one lit the fire of the concept for the other.

Ultimately, if innovation is your goal, banish all talk of the wheel. If ever there was a case of what goes around comes around, the dampening effect of tired clichés is the number one reason your company’s best ideas may be rotting on the vine.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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