I love reading innovation stories. Where the idea came from, how they overcame problems, and what they make possible. Stories are how we excite people about innovation and why it matters. We need to tell more stories and better stories.
My friends at Stronger Stories help organisations and individuals improve their storytelling, and they use tools like the Hero’s Journey to think through the narrative. It is a great way to shape a story, but you must be careful not to simplify too far.
I am frustrated by many of the stories I hear. They have an excessive focus on the individual innovator. I understand that personal testimony is powerful and that having a real person at the heart of a story makes it engaging and believable. It helps us to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine innovating ourselves. It encourages and stimulates. But it also feeds damaging myths about innovation and fails to illustrate, teach and share knowledge.
- The myth of epiphany
- The myth of the lone inventor
It is not about lightbulb moments
The myth of epiphany is that innovation is driven by ‘lightbulb moments’. A sudden flash of understanding in which everything suddenly falls into place, the problem is resolved, and the ‘innovation’ solidifies out of thin air. It assumes that the hard work has been done and the rest of the steps to success are just engineering, or just coding, or just manufacturing, or just marketing…
People ask me about projects I was involved in; where did the idea come from? Perhaps the original thought came from an analogy with a biological process, but I then explain the subsequent missteps, swerves and backtracking as we struggled to make the idea a reality. Unfortunately, most people are happy with “the idea came from thinking how biological systems relate to the problem”, and don’t listen to the rest.
The sad truth is that ideas are quick and cheap to generate; the trick is bringing it to fruition. One business wanted to up its innovation rate. We challenged ourselves to create 500 new ideas in a day; each one either immediately actionable or an intriguing thought that might lead to something actionable. We did it easily. Then came the hard graft of delivering an innovation. Only one of the ideas finally made it to market, and the innovation process so transformed it that you could not see the relationship between the original idea and final product.
A lightbulb moment is a start or a step forward. It isn’t the innovation.
It is not about the lone inventor
The myth of the lone inventor is equally damaging. The idea of a single genius who conceives and executes an innovation to the rapturous applause of a grateful market. We see it everywhere in stories of X inventing Y as if it was a stand-alone event. It doesn’t work that way.
If you ask who invented the steam engine, the first name that comes to mind is usually James Watt. The story that he got the idea from watching a kettle is almost certainly not true, but a brilliant piece of marketing. Watt made big improvements to the performance of earlier designs, but he wasn’t even first with a commercial successful steam engine. However, let’s give him credit for a new generation of engines.
So, we still have a lone hero right? Well no, Watt did not succeed alone. The entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, bankrolled commercialisation of the Watt design, pushed Watt into finalising his work and was the commercial genius behind the success of Boulton & Watt.
They had a design, but they could not make the cylinders they needed. Enter John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson who used his cannon making ability to manufacture cylinders with a smooth and accurate bore and got an exclusive contract with Boulton & Watt.
James Watt played a key part in the evolution of the steam engine and the development of the industrial revolution, but he was part of an innovation ecosystem of scientists, technologists, innovators, manufacturers and financiers.
Tell me more so that I can learn
Stories about the journey of an individual often miss out the tools they use to bring an idea to life and the mentors, guides and helpers who contributed along the way. They strip away the unfortunate choices and the near disasters. Taking anything useful out of that kind of story is hard.
Don’t just tell me the story of the lightbulb moment and the lone genius. Tell me the real Hero’s Journey, warts and all. That is something I can learn from.