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  • Writer's pictureJason Griffing

How Innovation Works by Matt Ridley

How Innovation Works examines the key ingredients of successful innovation. Using a host of historical examples, Ridley dispels many of the popular myths surrounding this important topic. In place of these misconceptions, this book provides practical insights into what it really takes to innovate. Below is a small list of some of the most impactful ideas from the book.

Invention vs innovation

We tend to use these terms interchangeably, but that is inaccurate. Inventors invent things; innovators make them viable, affordable, and reliable. Innovators turn inventions into things people want and can actually get their hands on.

The problem with being too early

Ridley discusses the surprisingly interesting history of wheeled luggage. For such a simple and seemingly obvious upgrade to its unwheeled predecessor, wheeled luggage seems like an innovation that was late in arriving. In reality, people were experimenting with versions of suitcases with wheels long before this technology became the default.

The reasons wheeled luggage took so long to catch are numerous:

  • Porters were plentiful and willing, especially for the executive types who were most often flying in those times.

  • Men traveled more than women back then and feared the social stigma that might come with looking too weak to carry their luggage.

  • Airports were smaller, meaning much shorter distances between the terminal, concourse, and vehicular transportation.

  • Stairways abounded.

  • etc...

As travel democratized, airports became larger, and technologies like elevators and escalators became more prevalent, the path was paved for wheeled luggage to become mainstream. The key takeaway here is that no matter how good the idea, sometimes you can't achieve innovation until the world is ready.

Innovation happens by evolution, not revolution

We love to believe in the big breakthrough. The singular genius whose flash of insight changed the world. In reality, innovation almost never happens this way. Instead, innovation is a slog. A gradual process of failing forward. Of relentless incremental improvement.

Innovation is a collective phenomenon

Throughout history, innovation has always flourished in areas with denser populations. Even today, small and isolated populations have simple technology and lower rates of innovation. The Andaman Islands are a modern hunter-gatherer example, while the North Koreans are a good example amongst industrial nations. Denser population centers create the conditions for ideas to "meet and mate." This is where innovation comes from.

Innovation is inevitable

Certain innovations are inevitable. The underlying technologies reach a point where the next big leap is bound to happen no matter who is around. If Thomas Edison was never born, we'd still have the light bulb. And if Larry Page and Sergey Brin never met, search engines would still be the biggest cash cow on the internet.

This is not to discount the important contributions of such famous innovators. To the contrary; these innovators won a highly competitive race. Their innovations were bound to happen, it was only a question of who would get there first. Indeed, Ridley cites many examples throughout the book where history has highlighted a singular innovator when in fact there were dozens working on the same problem. The point is that we should stop thinking of innovation as the result of a proverbial eureka moment. Innovation is inevitable. It is almost never the result of a sudden bolt of inspiration from on high. It is instead the result of identifying a ripe opportunity and then with dogged persistence to crack the code.

The cost of trial and error is a determining factor in the feasibility of a given innovation

One of the golden rules of innovation is that it always requires trial and error. Therefore, the cost of conducting experiments and failing at them is one of the most important determining factors when gauging the feasibility of a given innovation. The more expensive in terms of time, money, and even human lives it is to fail or make mistakes, the less feasible the innovation.

Ridley cites Elon Musk's Hyperloop idea, pointing out that this is not an entirely new idea. In fact, many of the concepts core to Musk's vision have been examined by others before. He argues that the key reason more progress hasn't been made on such technology is the prohibitively high cost of trial and error.

The Precautionary Principle ignores the risk of current technologies

The precautionary principle puts the onus on innovators to prove that their new technologies will not cause harm. The principle simultaneously prevents them from demonstrating that their innovation might cause good or replace existing technologies that are already causing harm. For example, the precautionary principle allows farmers to continue using pesticides like copper sulfate—which is known to cause environmental damage—while preventing innovation on newer pesticides or genetically engineered crops. Ostensibly, the precautionary principle is about harm reduction. However, by largely ignoring the harm being caused by current technologies, the principle can be self-defeating.

"Monkey First"

When attempting to innovate, you should aim to tackle the biggest problem first. Alphabet subsidiary, X — The Moonshot Factory, calls this approach tackling the monkey first, arguing that if you're trying to teach a monkey to recite Shakespeare while standing on a pedestal, you shouldn't spend a lot of time building the pedestal first. This goes against our instincts because we want to see progress. Sometimes, we are also under pressure to show the boss or the board of advisors progress. But by tackling the monkey first, we can more rapidly determine if the project is feasible.

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