Innovation is often strange
By Bill Schweber, Executive Editor - May 1, 2003
In this issue of EDN, you'll see who and what EDN readers voted as winners in our 13th annual Innovation/Innovator of the Year program, based on finalists in our March 6, 2003, issue. These winners, the finalists, and the entire run of entries we received represent a peculiar strain of the human species: those who are driven to make new things happen, sometimes for financial gain, often as a personal mission. Perhaps this "innovation" snippet of our DNA is what distinguishes us from many other species.
Despite all the formal and informal study of innovation and the many encomiums for it, there is no single template or model that defines and describes it. We can learn about it from many nonelectronic innovations, as I found when I finally had time to read Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty (Reference 1). This interesting book explores the development, manufacturing, and acceptance into mass markets of the zipper. (But, let me warn you, it would be much better if the author had cut out at least a third of it.)
Although zippers in almost uncountable forms now surround us, and we give not a moment's thought to them, their history is fairly complex. The inventors hoped to make a large profit, but they actually sank lots of money and energy into developing and marketing the zipper for decades before they achieved even modest success.
Yet what struck me after reading the book was the point that the author repeatedly made: The conventional reasons we normally associate with innovation did not drive the development of the zipper. We are usually told that innovation is someone's answer to a perceived problem. In the case of zippers, however, people were reasonably satisfied with buttons, hooks, or snaps and did not see the need for zippers. Early zippers, which used interlocking clasps instead of the teeth they now have, were costly and unreliable, and they offered no real advantage to clothing manufacturers or consumers. People who looked at a sample zipper often couldn't figure out what it did! Neither the need for nor the function of a zipper were compelling reasons for someone to struggle to conceive, perfect, and market it, or for the market to eventually accept it. None of our business models or forecasts can account for the zipper's development and eventual success.
That's the conundrum about innovation. We often don't see the benefit of an innovation, and the benefit is often fairly limited or even nonexistent, yet the invention may succeed due to perseverance, luck, or many other factors. At the same time, innovations that should logically become winners often don't. Business schools are full of case studies of both situations; unfortunately, engineering schools ignore these kinds of studies. Some innovations are relatively obvious in both their intent and their execution, and others—like the now-common zipper—are not obvious at all.
Yet we still have this urge to innovate, invent, do things differently, and do things better (and for some, of course, to make lots of money), that drives so much of the EDN audience and the people with whom we work and socialize. Take some time to think about this urge, because it's the driving force for many of our efforts and the creations that surround us.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Share your thoughts.
Currently no items