It takes more than a better mouse trap

Emerson was wrong. The world will not beat a path to your door just because you build a better mouse trap.

No busy, overstressed, fire-putting-out, content-with-the-product-they-have-now person really wants to hear from you. Even when you do build a better mousetrap, the world thinks you’re a giant pain in the ass. Nobody has the time, nobody has the patience, nobody wants to take the risk that your claims are exaggerated … We have to be invited in or we never get to tell our tale.

From Why Johnny Can’t Brand.

Not only does this apply to consumer and business products, it applies to science as well.

Related post: Getting women to smoke

Preparing for innovation

Thoughts from Tom Green on preparing students for innovation.

Today, many critics lament the lack of innovation in our society and draw the conclusion that more emphasis on teaching mathematics and science will lead to innovation. That will probably fail. Innovation comes from repeated successes in innovating. Innovation means trying ideas outside the accepted patterns. It means providing the opportunity to fail as a learning experience rather than as an embarrassment. … the traditional school powerfully suppresses any tendency toward being innovative. Both teachers and students are driven to conform.

From Bright Boys: The Making of Information Technology.

Related posts

Innovation V

About a month ago I wrote a series of four blog posts on innovation. The most important theme from these posts is the statement by Seth Godin just posted an article on his blog entitled The fibula and the safety pin that fits in with a series of innovation post I did about a month ago (Innovation I, II, III, IV). From Godin’s post:

Just about everything has a strike against it. It’s either already been done or it’s never been done. Ignore both conditions. Pushing an idea through the dip of acceptance is far more valuable than inventing something that’s never existed… and then walking away from it.

His phrase “pushing an idea through the dip of acceptance” is a good definition of innovation. (It also contains a passing reference to his excellent little book The Dip.) It goes right along with Michael Schrage’s statement that “innovation is not what innovators do but what customers adopt.” Too often we romanticize the inventor and fail to appreciate the toil of the innovator.

Innovation IV

John Tukey said

efficiency = statistical efficiency x usage.

I don’t know the context of this quote, but here’s what I think Tukey meant. The usefulness of a statistical method depends not just on the method’s abstract virtues, but also on how often the method can be used and how often in fact it is used. This ties in with Michael Schrage’s comment that innovation is not what innovators do but what customers adopt.

Innovation III

In his book Diffusion of Innovations Everett Rogers lists five factors in determining rate of adoption of an innovation.

First is the relative advantage of the innovation. This is not limited to objective improvements but also includes factors such as social prestige.

The second is compatibility with existing systems and values.

Third is complexity, especially perceived complexity.

The fourth is trialability, how easily someone can try out the innovation without making a commitment.

The fifth is observability, whether the advantages of the innovation are visible.

Innovators are often criticized for compatibility, for not making a larger break from the past. After Bjarne Stroustrup invented the C++ programming language, many people said he should have sacrificed compatibility with C in order to make C++ a better language. However, had he done so, C++ would not have become popular enough to gain the critics’ attention. As Stroustrup said in an interview, “There are just two kinds of languages: the ones everybody complains about and the ones nobody uses.”

Innovation II

In 1601, an English sea captain did a controlled experiment to test whether lemon juice could prevent scurvy.  He had four ships, three control and one experimental.  The experimental group got three teaspoons of lemon juice a day while the control group received none. No one in the experimental group developed scurvy while 110 out of 278 in the control group died of scurvy. Nevertheless, citrus juice was not fully adopted to prevent scurvy until 1865.

Overwhelming evidence of superiority is not sufficient to drive innovation.

Source: Diffusion of Innovations

Innovation I

Innovation is not the same as invention. According to Peter Denning,

An innovation is a transformation of practice in a community. It is not the same as the invention of a new idea or object. The real work of innovation is in the transformation of practice. … Many innovations were preceded or enabled by inventions; but many innovations occurred without a significant invention.

Michael Schrage makes a similar point.

I want to see the biographies and the sociologies of the great customers and clients of innovation. Forget for a while about the Samuel Morses, Thomas Edisons, the Robert Fultons and James Watts of industrial revolution fame. Don’t look to them to figure out what innovation is, because innovation is not what innovators do but what customers adopt.

Innovation in the sense of Denning and Schrage is harder than invention. Most inventions don’t lead to innovations.

The simplest view of the history of invention is that Morse invented the telegraph, Fulton the steamboat, etc. A sophomoric view is that men like Morse and Fulton don’t deserve so much credit because they only improved on and popularized the inventions of others. A more mature view is that Morse and Fulton do indeed deserve the credit they receive. All inventors build on the work of predecessors, and popularizing an invention (i.e. encouraging innovation) requires persistent hard work and creativity.