Curious Insight

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Curious Insight

The Innovators

17th October 2016

After finishing Walter Isaacson’s well-known 2014 book The Innovators, I was struck by a few things.  First, I realized just how little I knew about the history of computing before I read this book.  Charles Babbage and the Difference Engine.  Ada Lovelace.  Shockley and the Traitorous Eight.  There are so many great stories with interesting (and often flawed) characters playing significant roles in events that led us to where we are today; a cascade of discovery and invention, each building on what came before, often in unexpected ways, culminating in breakthroughs that changed the world and shaped our everyday experience with technology.  Many of these stories and characters were completely unfamiliar to me, and if for no other reason than to acquaint oneself with the knowledge of what preceded us, Isaacson’s book is worth the investment.

But there’s more to it than that.  The common link between each story is a theme that the seeds of innovation are not random, and there are some commonalities that increase the likelihood not just of having a breakthrough but making sure it takes off.  Throughout the book, Isaacson frames each story in a similar narrative – that innovation is a collaborative process, and the legend of the lone hacker changing the world on his or her own is a cultural myth.  As a telling of historical events, this could be viewed as problematic.  There are probably lots of examples of important research, discoveries, inventions etc. that were left out of the book.  It would be perfectly reasonable to argue that the sample set used in the book is biased toward examples that fit the narrative that the author wanted to tell.  For this reason I would not characterize it as a history book, but recognizing this fact doesn’t diminish its value, because the questions it raises around innovation are arguably more interesting.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider a relatively foundational question – what is innovation?  How do we define it?  Why is it so desirable?  As far as I can tell, there’s no single agreed-upon definition.  According to Wikipedia, the most “complete” way to describe innovation is:

…production or adoption, assimilation, and exploitation of a value-added novelty in economic and social spheres; renewal and enlargement of products, services, and markets; development of new methods of production; and establishment of new management systems. It is both a process and an outcome.

Maybe a good way to summarize it is that innovation unlocks some sort of economic value by doing something new/different from what existed before. You may notice that this definition is highly market-centric. There's no mention of things like ground-breaking scientific discoveries. I think the key realization here is that new discoveries/inventions aren’t automatically innovative – you have to do something WITH them that enriches people’s lives.

Let’s do a hypothetical thought experiment.  Imagine that I write a research paper that demonstrably shows how to create an effective vaccine for malaria, but it’s published in an academic journal where it goes largely unnoticed.  Was it innovative?  What if someone follows up on my work years later and eventually, after several iterations, it leads to the mass production of a vaccine that saves lives?  Based on the framing of innovation in the book, it seems like the right conclusion is fairly straightforward - new science, no matter how important or significant, is only innovative if someone ultimately does something with it for the betterment of humanity.

I think what Isaacson was trying to convey is that to be truly innovative, it’s not enough to be a genius.  Having a big impact goes beyond discovery.  You also need to be able to communicate why it’s important, build a product/service around it, find an appropriate market, convince people it’s worthwhile etc.  Isaacson uses this argument as rationale for his thesis, but here I think we diverge a bit. I think innovation isn’t by nature collaborative, but rather multidisciplinary.  Innovation requires ability in lots of different areas. Isaacson himself references this idea when he points out that innovative people are often operating at the intersection of the sciences and the humanities.  One reason it may seem like innovation requires collaboration is because people that excel at many disciplines are very rare.

The multidisciplinary nature of innovation reminds me of the teachings of someone I enjoy reading about immensely, Warren Buffet’s partner Charlie Munger.  Charlie speaks often about the benefits of being well-versed in a wide range of subject areas and developing a latticework of mental models, a network of concepts and their relationships to one another that captures the really important ideas from every major discipline.  I think having access to a robust set of mental models, or partnering with others whose mental models complement your own, is probably one of the keys to successful innovation.

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