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The Death of Innovation and Apple’s Secrecy Penchant

Posted by Bob Warfield on October 9, 2011

Interestingly, I found two great articles about the death of innovation in my blog reader today.  First up was Venture Capitalist Peter Thiel, writing that innovation had stalled and largely arguing it is the cause of our economic woes.  He goes on to suggest we restart it with energy, and somewhat cryptically speaks of constructing hundreds of nuclear reactors.  Thiel’s articles are always long, and somewhat opaque, but this one is worth a read.  As so often can happen in the Internet world, juxtaposition unnaturally amplified Thiel’s thoughts as I immediately came across another article, this time by Science Fiction author Neal Stephenson.  The articles echoes several of Thiel’s thoughts about the death of innovation and the questions around why we haven’t seen more innovation in the energy area.  Being an SF writer, Stephenson also wants to know what happened to our space program.  He wonders in general why we can no longer execute large scale innovations such as we did during the 60’s and 70’s.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Stephenson’s musings concerns the damage our connectedness does to innovation.  I find this entirely plausible in the sense that innovation is evolutionary.  Innovators are very seldom the first ones to think of an idea, they just may be the first ones to get the timing and execution right enough to succeed in popularizing it.  But what happens with too much connectedness?  As Stephenson puts it, when we have something we think is a great idea, we hop on the Internet only to discover someone had the idea but failed.  What if we hadn’t know they’d failed?  Could we have carried out that great idea and succeeded?  Perhaps we could.

I was watching an interview with Wozniak about Jobs (sorry, didn’t keep the link and it seems there are many) and he was asked at one point about Jobs’ legendary penchant for secrecy.  Woz gave a fascinating answer that boiled down to the need to let an idea develop far enough before it was subjected to too much criticism.  Shades of the idea Stephenson has.  Perhaps great ideas need some sort of Galapagos Island where they can go an be isolated long enough to come to fruition.  Perhaps that was the true advantage Jobs had in not listening to customers and not exposing the ideas to public critiques before they were far enough along that their true gestalt could be experienced.

There is an argument that this connectedness downfall affects Silicon Valley.  While it is extremely helpful to be able to join the network that is Silicon Valley, still, it is overly connected when it comes to critiquing ideas and being all too aware of failures.  What happens to Venture Capital firms as partners age and catalog an almost unassailable wall of failure experiences.  “Sorry, we won’t invest in that idea, we’ve already seen something similar fail.”  Entrepreneurs decry the herd mentality, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the herd isn’t smart just because they are a herd.  Perhaps the issue is the herd has just seen too much carnage around the periphery and so they spook easily.

Maybe we just need to spend a little less time worrying about the other guy’s failures and instead focus more on our own success.

3 Responses to “The Death of Innovation and Apple’s Secrecy Penchant”

  1. At a company I used to work for there was a fair amount of well-intended constructive criticism of new ideas, the goal of which was to make them better, faster, stronger. Not too many ideas made it through this gauntlet. I’m sure the weak ones got weeded out, but maybe so too did some that just needed more time to simmer.

    After awhile, though, one starts to find themselves feeling like it’s one versus everyone whenever a new idea is brought to the table.

    I voiced this once as there being no shortage of Devil’s Advocates, when we really could have used a few more Championing Angels…

  2. So maybe “fail fast, fail early” is bunk, or we need to narrow the definition of fail?

  3. I’m sure Jobs would have told you the ideas had never failed so there was no “fail early” and that it wasn’t a Democracy where naysayers had a vote.

    Critical thinking is extremely hard to do well, especially while things are still in the abstract. The problem is the nitpickers who never took the time to understand the vision in the first place before diving in with criticisms. Anyone who ever does much UX work is very familiar with the idea that everyone has an opinion, most think they’re experts, yada, yada. But perhaps the biggest limitation I encounter is very few have much capacity to visualize abstract concepts. You can describe it all you want, but until they can hold and play with it, they just don’t get it. Borland very nearly killed the spreadsheet notebook tabs and right mouse button UX features we invented for Quattro Pro just because some of those calling the shots couldn’t visualize the value. I ignored them and built it that way anyway.

    Even once you get past the concept stage and into the prototype stage there will still be a great many people who can’t get past minor blemishes. So you actually have to build ideas like that to a pretty complete status before you can hope to get broad feedback that is at all worthwhile. Most of us who present very often have experienced a meeting where you thought you were presenting profound ideas and instead of even trying to grok them the audience focused on pointing out your typos!

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