When I was a kid, I could do some very cool magic tricks. I could change two nickels into a dime right before your eyes. I could also tell you which card you had chosen out of a deck of cards. I could even tear a dollar bill in half and then put it back together!
Ok, so maybe I wasn’t a Chris Angel or a Lance Burton. In fact, if I did the trick more than one time, almost everyone could see what I was doing. What was the difference between me and the kids who could amaze again and again? Practice. The kids who were superb at a particular trick practiced that trick until their props burst into flames. And then they bought more props and kept on practicing. In the end, after hours and hours of practice, you couldn’t detect what they were doing that changed a “trick” into “magic.”
Even as we watch the magician perform his trick, we know that the match was not actually floating above the card. We know that the coin could not leap directly up through the shot glass and leave the glass undamaged.
We know that matches can’t float, and we know that coins will not levitate and pass through glass. We even know that the magician is performing a “trick.” Everyone openly calls it a trick! And yet, even though we know it is a trick, we are still amazed. Why?
Assumptions are the foundations of how we interpret the world around us. We assume that the information our senses provide to us is complete. We assume that our experience will allow us to interpret that information. We assume that if everyone around us has the same information as we do, that they will interpret and act on that information in the same way we do. We assume that new events will fall within the realm of our ability to sense those events fully and that these new events will align with our prior experience.
In the case of a “trick” of “magic,” we know that one or more of our assumptions must be wrong. The trick amazes us because it violates one or more of our assumptions, and yet we cannot determine which assumption is being violated. When I performed a magic trick as a kid, it quickly became obvious which assumption I was violating. Perhaps someone saw me move the card to the top of the deck. Or perhaps someone heard me place the coin on the top of the shot glass. I was unable to trick your senses, nor did I perform the trick well enough to cause it to fit within your realm of experiences and assumptions.
The truly talented magicians have practiced sufficiently that through the use of their props and skills they are able to shift the “trick” so that it appears to conform to all of our assumptions. And in the process, the trick has become magic. And we are amazed.
Arthur C. Clarkeauthor of 2001: A Space Odyssey, physicist, futurist and one of the first people to propose a satellite based communications network (1945 – twelve years before the launch of Sputnik 1)stated in 1961:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
When considering innovation, I evolve Dr. Clarke’s statement to be:
Any sufficiently advanced innovation will fall sufficiently far outside of our assumptions that it will appear to be magical and amazing.
I grew up in the 1960s, and when I got my first ever calculator for my birthday in 1974, I was definitely amazed. It was a Corvus 310 with six functions (add, subtract, multiply, divide, percent, and square root). Compared to using a slide ruler, it was a totally magical innovation.
When I played my first computer game in the university’s computer labs in 1975, I was almost totally overwhelmed. Shooting down rocket ships as they streamed by on the green graphics cathode ray tube (CRT) was amazingly innovative and definitely created a magical experience for me.
Nothing in my past experience prepared me for these new innovations. While crude in comparison to today’s amazing devices, these early technologies could almost overwhelm your senses as you absorbed what constituted a new way of viewing, utilizing, and interfacing with the world around you.
When it comes to being innovative, many consultants will tell you that you have to deploy three policies that are critical to creating an “innovation culture:”
- Everyone needs to innovate. Let’s create more innovators (magicians) so that perhaps one of them will be good enough to create a sense of amazement for our customers through a new innovation.
- Management needs to be more open. Perhaps the next innovation will be so far outside our manager’s current experience that it will appear magical and the management team might therefore discard it as a trick.
- Executives need to take more risk. The next innovation may be too magical for us to understand how our customers will use it, or perhaps we are not seeing magic when it is right before us. We must allow more innovations (magic tricks) to reach the market in order to find a truly new innovation.
These three policies are grounded in the fact that identifying the next innovation appears to be almost magical. Where do innovations come from? Is it epiphany? Is it R&D investment? Is it new, younger employees? Where is the spark that creates an innovative environment within a company?
Innovating new products, services, and markets is not magic. It just appears that way because of our existing assumptions. These assumptions, or innovation fallacies, often act as the foundations of how we experience the innovation process. Therefore, the innovation process appears to be magical. A trick. An amazing, unexplainable event.
As long as we accept these innovation fallacies, Dr. Clarke’s statement can be reworded as:
The innovation process is indistinguishable from magic.
An innovation fallacy adds to the sense of amazement that people feel whenever the innovation process delivers a truly innovative and highly successful product. These fallacies reinforce or even define our assumptions and therefore directly impact how we interpret, manage, fund, staff, and predict the results of the innovation process. The fallacies can change the skill of innovating into the magic of innovating.
Start-up companies often do not recognize, or appear unaware of, these innovation fallacies. In some cases, people who are branded as “innovative” simply refuse to accept the boundaries imposed by assumptions. They think “outside the box.” The innovation fallacies appear to have no power over the “natural innovator.”
Conversely, more established companies often seem to be stuck “inside the box.” The very strength of their box is related to how firmly the management team believes in and accepts the innovation fallacies.
When examined carefully, the innovation process follows a well defined and predictable lifecycle. When innovation successes and failures are evaluated without an understanding of this lifecycle, the innovation fallacies will arise almost spontaneously. In order to work in a world of what appears to be innovation magic, we feel we must create assumptions that help us define that world. Unfortunately, the assumptions and the fallacies that create them are entirely wrong.
Top 10 Innovation Fallacies
I am confident that many of us could come up with far more than 10 innovation fallacies. And I am also sure that many readers will have other fallacies that they feel should make the Top 10 list. My top 10 list is not presented in any particular order. I am not ranking them from one to 10. Each innovation fallacy could have a greater or lesser impact on a particular company.
Here are my top 10 innovation fallacies:
- Innovation originates from the best educated and financed.
- Innovations should target the market.
- More innovation is good innovation.
- Disruptive innovation is risky innovation.
- Innovating is the same as competing.
- Open innovation is best.
- Current customers are your best innovation source.
- Innovating is the same as inventing.
- R&D spending equates to innovation potential.
- Innovating is as predictable as winning the lottery.
Each of these innovation fallacies will be examined in detail in a future article. The goal is to eliminate the fallacy, eliminate the assumptions, and drive innovation according to the innovation lifecycle.