We were recently reading Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture by Erez Aiden and Jean Baptiste Michel. The authors were the ones who developed the Ngram Reader, a tool for mining all of the books currently scanned in by GoogleBooks. It’s provided (providing) fascinating insights into how language and culture have changed—and are likely to change.
But before you check out how the Ngram Reader works, there is a story about innovation that may have some bearing on how you are innovating…
Aiden and Michel revisit the story of the Wright Brothers and their “invention” of the airplane. Perhaps you already knew that the Wright Brothers were just two of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of individuals trying to apply the latest technology to flight.
Like stories of the automobile or radio, you can see how many other people, from many different countries, can be working on the same innovation, but someone makes The Leap. (Our term, not the authors’.)
Turns out that what allowed the Wright Brothers to make The Leap was that, while others were focused on making more and more powerful (re: heavier) engines, the Wright Brothers were focused on the wings and aerodynamics. (Maybe this had something to do with the fact they were bicycle makers?)
You can see the dilemma: with the rise of gasoline-powered engines, inventors were getting excited about the potentials to apply that power.
Before the Wright Brothers ever flew at Kitty Hawk, they created a wind tunnel, a way to prototype their wing designs to see which ones were more likely to fly. (Literally.) So when it came time to try out that unwieldy double-winged airplane of theirs, they had tested out different wings.
(Imagine the number of crashes they would have had to endure until they got the (w)right wings.)
The point of all of this? Sometimes the big idea demands taking a step back and taking apart the different element. The idea of Flight is not just launching something into the air (military experts had been doing that for years) or overcoming gravity (balloonists had been doing THAT for years), sometimes innovation means taking things apart and getting the pieces right.
For folks like us in marketing communications, we can talk about the next “killer app” but to get to the heart and soul of what we want to do, we must find ways to improve key components (even today, the most powerful turbine engines in the world can’t do the work alone).
It’s by getting smaller, essential elements right that our ideas can soar.
(P.S. Here’s a link to a Ted talk by the authors Michel and Aiden.)