by Art Markman
Bust Your Innovation MythsIt is common to tell stories of great discoveries. Hundreds of years later, we still talk about Galileo Galilei dropping balls of different weights off the Leaning Tower of Pisa to shatter existing beliefs about the way objects fall. Textbooks tell the story of Sir Isaac Newton being struck by an apple and having a sudden insight about gravity. We learn about an inspired Charles Darwin developing a new theory evolution while watching finches on the Galápagos Islands.
The problem with these stories glorifying eureka moments is that — most of the time — they are not true.
In the book Science Secrets, my colleague Alberto Martinez, University of Texas science historian, roots through primary source documents to tease apart fact and fiction in these myths. For example, Martinez points out that 16th-century Italian historian Benedetto Varchi mentions tests of the idea that heavier objects do not fall proportionally faster than light objects in 1544 — twenty years before Galileo was born. Moreover, contrary to usual claims, Galileo later reported that objects of different weights fall at different speeds!
Corporate cultures also tend to create stories about important events in the life of a company. Individuals within a company are held up as heroes who championed key ideas, fought bureaucracies, and instituted significant changes. Similarly, other people and projects are put forward as examples of key failures. In a recent New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell describes the development of the desktop operating system that is now so familiar in Apple and Windows computers. He analyzes myths related to the idea that Xerox PARC (which initially developed a version of that operating system) had all of the ideas that were ultimately incorporated in the highly successful Macintosh computer, but failed to capitalize on them. Steve Jobs had to add quite a bit of insight about users when adapting the desktop operating system for a mass audience.
We often try to learn from these stories of success and failure. We seek the business equivalents of Galileo, Newton, and Darwin — legendary figures who will discover innovative ideas that will revolutionize an industry. It has become trite to repeat George Santayana's quote that those people who do not learn history are doomed to live it again. However, by learning from myths rather than history, we may be doomed to fail by repeating a history that never was.
The key lesson here is that discovery myths are slanted to focus on great people and decisive events, so people can better relate to them. But by focusing on the individuals, we ignore both the contribution of others who played a role in a new idea, as well as contemporary culture at the time of the innovation. Often, there are many people toying with similar ideas, and it is the collective work of a community that gives rise to real innovation.
As Isaac Newton himself once said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" (a statement that wasn't even originally his).
In addition, important ideas develop over time. It is rare that there is a decisive event that triggers significant change. Instead, new ideas typically emerge through discussion, argument, and rigorous testing. The physicist J. J. Thomson is often credited with discovering the electron in 1897. As Martinez points out, though, the actual development of the idea of the electron emerged through the collective efforts of a scientific community over a period of more than 20 years.
In order to truly learn the lessons that corporate history has to teach us, it is important to act like historians. When a new idea or innovation comes to fruition, dig into the details of how it actually emerged. Talk directly to people who were involved in the development of the ideas. Read reports written at the time those ideas were being created. Do not wait for a great person to champion a key idea in a decisive moment. Instead, create an organizational culture in which a community works together to nurture emerging ideas.
Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently editor of the journal Cognitive Science, and consults regularly through his company Maximizing Mind. Follow him on twitter @abmarkman.