Friday, February 22, 2008

The network is the innovation

Building a better mousetrap is not a precursor of success. So shared my friend Andy Hargadon yesterday in a talk to the UCD Graduate School of Management’s Business Partners. Andy facilitated a sage, humorous, pragmatic, eye-opening talk about the myths and realities of innovation. It was terrific.

While the mousetrap is an ante, the key to fruitful (profitable!) innovation is creating a network that will make the mousetrap successful. Take Edison: He did not invent the electric light bulb. Rather, he developed the first successful network that brought light into homes. The idea/invention was part of the solution; success came from creating and cultivating a network to produce and deliver the outcome (light) consumers desired.

Henry Ford, as Andy relayed, is another cardinal example. Ford did not develop the first automobile, nor the first assembly line. He perfected the automobile assembly line – read: made new connections -- an adaptation of previous efforts and borrowing from automation in meat (meat=cars?) packing plans. Ford’s take on his role:

I invented nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work...Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.
Back to Andy’s premise. Innovation, he asserts, is about connecting, not inventing; great leaps happen as networks converge (not when someone sires an idea). He proffered a five-step process (“NetStorming”) for companies and entrepreneurs to employ:
1. Identify your solution.
2. For 15 minutes, identify as many types of network partners as you can (e.g., customers, suppliers, regulators, etc.).
3. For 15 minutes, identify specific people or companies as potential network partners.
4. Find connections between the needs and resources of those different partners.
5. Identify how your solution can enable these connections.
In short, the efficacy of an innovation is based on its (the company’s) ability to connect and enable. Bravo. It reminds me of a passage from Harold Evans’ They Made America, amplifying the value of combinatorial creations, personal connections, and enabled networks:
Connections between innovators are ubiquitous -- one good innovation deserves another. LEO BAEKELAND corresponded with EDISON, the WRIGHT BROTHERS, FORD, WILLIS WHITNEY of General Electric, the DUPONTS and BELL. That the engineering potential of Bakelite might be greater than the chemical was ELMER SPERRY’S contribution. SAMUEL COLT was friends with SAMUEL MORSE. GIANNINI’S Bank of America took a risk by investing in WALT DISNEY’S early movies, including Fantasia in 1940. Disney hired the young BILL HEWLETT and DAVID PACKARD to build some of its first electronic equipment for Fantasia. THOMAS WATSON SR. was probably the first passenger in a car with an electric self-starter built by his friend CHARLES KETTERING, who needed Leo Baekeland’s new plastic for insulation. HENRY FORD used Bakelite for his fenders. Ford’s assembly lines were inspired by the beef and pork disassembly lines in the Chicago factories of the meatpacking innovators ARMOUR and SWIFT. ARNOLD BECKMAN backed WILLIAM SHOCKLEY who hired ROBERT NOYCE and GORDON MOORE whose circuits were used by NOLAN BUSHNELL, the founder of Atari, who hired STEVE JOBS, and TED HUFF, creator of the chip that made personal computers possible, worked for Intel, which called in GARY KILDALL, the most important innovator in computer operating systems, who was betrayed by IBM.

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