Innovation 101
21 Oct 2013

If you can't rely on your eureka moment — and you shouldn't — then what's left to do to produce some actually innovative work? First, you need to admit something.

You suck

Your genius idea is most probably not new. You are working on a subject that has interested hundreds, thousands, perhaps billions in the history of science and humankind. You are not more clever than all of them. In fact, you probably sit somewhere in the last 10% in terms of intelligence and experience. The probability that you have all of a sudden thought of something that not a single one of them has already explored is infinitesimal. If you decide to pursue your initial idea anyway, you will eventually realize that it either sucks, or it has been done before. Most probably both.

However, what is possible, and in fact quite likely, is that you may have combined multiple ideas and concepts that did not originate from you and the result of this combination might be innovative. If you're lucky, then this combination might even prove to be powerful, in which case you will have made a breakthrough.

What I'm saying here is nothing new, of course.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

The wisest of the philosophers asked: We admit that our predecessors were wiser than we. At the same time we criticize their comments, often rejecting them and claiming that the truth rests with us. How is this possible?" The wise philosopher responded: "Who sees further a dwarf or a giant? Surely a giant for his eyes are situated at a higher level than those of the dwarf. But if the dwarf is placed on the shoulders of the giant who sees further? ... So too we are dwarfs astride the shoulders of giants. We master their wisdom and move beyond it. Due to their wisdom we grow wise and are able to say all that we say, but not because we are greater than they.

Isaiah di Trani (c. 1180 – c. 1250), source: Wikipedia, emphasis mine

No innovation ever happens in an isolated, confined environment. Or perhaps it does, but only in the minds of the most incredible geniuses. And no, I'm not referring to you.

We are all dwarves: our experience of life, the world and science is limited. However, what we can do is study the works of our giant predecessors. If we do, we will find their limitations. We will understand what makes them great, and what can make them even better. Their limitations are your opportunity for innovation. And you will address these limitations by looking for novel ideas, things that the original inventor did not, and could not know about. Perhaps the combination of ideas will not completely work out: again, this will be an opportunity for you.

You might fear that your peers will tell you that you are doing "incremental innovation". This will happen, no doubt about it. But it will happen very rarely if your work is sufficiently powerful. Nobody worth listening to will criticize the lack of innovation of a method that dominates benchmarks and opens the door to a whole new array of applications.

Conclusion? Here we go:

  1. Do your homework and see what others have tried before you.
  2. Pick a problem your own size.
  3. Have great results.

As a #4, I could add "Get ready to defend yourself against aggressive criticisms", but that would take a whole new post.