Innovation is the ‘in’ thing. Innovate or die is the buzz up and down the hive mind. Everybody is feeling like they must innovate all of the things all of the time. But is the incessant innovation the right mode of approaching this?
We constantly spin up stories of the intrepid innovator and the change they bring about in the world. But is that what is really happening on the ground? I think we can bring up some metaphors to bear on this that may open up some different possibilities of conceptualizing innovation.
Note: I’m writing this as an early adopter and some time professional innovator. But despite a personal drive to constantly try new things, I find that approaching innovation uncritically and without regard to the full diversity of its instantiations is counterproductive. Therefore, this is meant to be a corrective as much to myself as others.
Infection as metaphor of innovation
When an innovation spreads through an institution, it does so just like an infection. It starts attacking existing systems who then have to spend time and resources on averting the damage done by the attack. We only tell the stories where the attack led to the strengthening of the system – like with childhood maladies or inoculation. But chronic disease and death of the system are also not uncommon – we just don’t tell them in association with innovation.
This weakening happens through many processes that every innovator and innovatee (and this covers most people in one way or another) will have direct experience of. Innovators have experienced resistance, doubt, slow response times. Those are all defense mechanisms the disease of innovation has to overcome.
The people who experience the innovation as the infected cells, can attest to lower productivity because of the need to learn new things, endless meetings on how to implement the new thing keeping them from doing the job, miscommunication and misunderstanding leading to higher error rate (be it in production or management).
Where this metaphor breaks down is that if the innovation is successful, the system is transformed. Almost, as if instead of a tumor killing us it would grow us a new useful organ while others may fall off without much harm to the organism as a whole.
On the other hand, the success of the system in extinguishing a malignant innovation can make it more resilient to innovation in the future. And this may lower its chances of survival in the face of environmental changes that make it easier to thrive for those where innovation took the system over. This latter aspect is what proponents of innovation as an unalloyed good point to. But that is a backward perspective. From the ground, the system as an organism will always have to start by defending against innovation as infection no matter how well-intentioned everybody involved may be.
Ignorance as metaphor of innovation
Innovation is often equated with knowledge. People research new ways of doing things, they bring together existing strands of knowledge and weave from them beautiful tapestries of brighter futures. But in practice, innovation almost always benefits from ignorance. Or even depends on it.
Ignorance by inventors is a well-known companion to some of the biggest inventions and discoveries. When Morse set out to create the telegraph system, it was received wisdom that what he was trying to do was physically impossible but he did not know that. Columbus is often given as the example of the innovator who was right and pursued his correct knowledge in spite of ridicule. But the truth was he was a zealot crank and completely wrong about everything. Everybody had known the Earth was round for over a thousand years by the time of Columbus and they also knew how large it was. He did not doubt it was round but he subscribed to a crank theory that it was much smaller than it was. He just got lucky there was a continent in the way.
This ignorance-of-the-impossible narrative can be applied to many of the other famous inventors. But this story is often told with the naysayers as hidebound blocks to progress and inventors as courageous pursuers of the truth. But this way the narrative misses the overwhelming majority of ignorant would-be inventors being simple cranks. For every clueless Morse and cranky Columbus, there were thousands of unknown failures who did not know or believe something truly impossible was impossible (just like most random mutations do not win the natural selection lottery). The correct response to somebody claiming they are able to do something known to be impossible is to doubt it. The trick is being able to update one’s priors in a way that helps us better judge the signs of success.
But we should also not overlook the ignorance among the adopters of innovations. The lack of information on the side of adopters of innovation is another necessary ingredient to success. Every innovation is too uncertain and often unreliable in its earliest stages to be considered by the well-informed other than as a bet. This ignorance is partly a result of pure uncertainty as to the viability of something new. But much more commonly, it is just ignorance of how the new thing works, what are its limitations – and how it truly differs from the old. This results in Potemkin innovations like the original Mechanical Turk. The innovations or their effects are often too complex to be fully understood (even by their inventors). This then leads to the creation of a zeitgeist (a sort of general framing) which provides the innovation with enough vectors for infection and the possibility for improvement.
But it also makes it very easy for impostors to sneak in. At present, there are many examples of companies simply labeling products with ‘machine learning’ or ‘blockchain’ and selling it to credulous investors and customers even if the underlying technology is not actually using anything that could be meaningfully described that way.
Imitation as metaphor of innovation
Innovation is associated with inventiveness and creativity. Strokes of brilliance and flashes of genius. But almost all of the great innovations were imitating a previous less successful attempt. It is well known that great inventions and discoveries often appear multiple times simultaneously as different people synthesize available information into similar outcomes. Perhaps the most famous examples are Newton and Leibniz for calculus and Darwin and Wallace for natural selection. But this holds true for almost all the great inventions. Either somebody figured it out as well, or was getting very close.
But more importantly, by the time we get to talk about almost any innovation, it will have reached us through a long chain of imitations. Novel ways of thinking or doing things really only become innovations when somebody copies them.
This process of imitation is similar to that of natural selection, so it usually leads to refinement and strengthening of the original idea. But let’s not forget that natural selection is based around the idea of imperfect copies (random mutations) finding uses that increase their chances of spreading (reproduction). So as part of this metaphor, innovation without copying would just be lots of random ideas that go nowhere.
Not only is innovation the result of imitation, without imitation, there would be no point to it in the first place.
There is not meant to be conclusion here. Investigating metaphors just opens up new prisms that slightly change the way we look at things. Sometimes, it’s the process of thinking through mappings in the metaphor that forces you to investigate one of the domains more closely. And that’s what this is all about.