Building disruptive technologies, products and businesses is unquestionably about creating something “new”.
That newness can come in many forms. It might be fresh thinking applied to an existing problem space, it can be a product for a market segment that has never been serviced before, it can be a product which invents its own new market.
In all cases though, disruptive businesses create something novel.
This is a not an especially controversial point.
But there is a pervasive misconception about newness, an insidious one that needs to be corrected.
Originality is not something divorced from the past — whether it’s in product design, art, music or anything else. Don’t let the Hollywood montages fool you: innovative ideas do not spring fully-formed from some blinding strike of pure inspiration.
Rather: newness, as the great artists, poets and innovators will attest, is a novel recombination and synthesis of one’s predecessors and contemporaries. A novel application of the principles, insights and inventions of the past applied to the challenges of the present.
The genius of innovation then, is not about invention but curation and cohesion.
Let’s look at some examples.
Dante, an Italian Renaissance poet, was a strikingly original poetic voice. In his seminal work The Divine Comedy, he created an imaginative landscape of a scale and character that was a quantum leap beyond what had come before.
TS Elliot, discussing Dante in his book of essays “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism”, does not write of his genius for invention, but of his genius for borrowing:
“There has only been one Dante; and after all, Dante had the benefit of years of practice in forms employed and altered by numbers of contemporaries and predecessors; he did not waste years of youth in metric invention; and when he came to the commedia he knew how to pillage right and left”
This “pillaging” applies equally to innovation in other art forms.
For example: the history of the electric guitar can reasonably be divided between the periods of “Before Jimi” and “After Jimi”.
But this originality was not born in a vacuum. Hendrix was an eclectic and voracious student of the musicians and composers that had preceded him. And the originality of his compositions and style is a testament to that breadth of knowledge.
Billy Cox, bass player from Band Of Gypsies, describes first over-hearing Hendrix playing as: “somewhere between Beethoven and John Lee Hooker”.
This idea extends further, not only to the arts, but to business and products as well.
In recent times there is perhaps no more defining product company than Apple, and no product visionary more lauded than the late Steve Jobs.
If you watch Jobs’ Stanford commencement address – there is a moment where he discusses how an appreciation of calligraphy impacted his typographic choices for the first Macintosh computers.
“I decided to take a calligraphy class… It was beautiful. Historical… 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography”.
While these typographic innovations might seem distant today (“Wait, computers only used to have one font?”) – they were a huge deal at the time.
Firstly, Apple implemented “proportionally spaced” fonts. Distinct from the “mono spaced” fonts of the traditional terminal – proportionally spaced fonts are a far more aesthetically focused and print-like on-screen experience.
Secondly, the Macintosh operating system rendered typefaces on screen, the same way they printed. Replacing a cumbersome Print-And-See workflow.
These two innovations paved the way for the “desktop publishing” and personal computing phenomenon of the 80’s and 90’s.
Much has also been made of Jobs’ reverence for the Japanese form of Zen Buddhism. A philosophy which strongly emphasises single-point meditation (i.e. focusing on one’s breathing to exclude other thought).
This singular, distraction-free focus, when it is translated into the realm of aesthetics, gives rise to a strong emphasis on minimalism and simplicity. Sound familiar?
Apple’s product design, from physical form factor, to user interface, exudes these qualities.
Now if you are a young, ambitious person looking to start a business, it would sound like very strange advice to go out and study the ancient art of calligraphy, and Japanese Zen Buddhism. Yet – these are the sources of inspiration which set a young Steve Jobs on his path.
Jobs, Dante, Hendrix – these are exemplars of a trend: great innovators tend not to break with lineage, but to borrow from a constellation of pre-existing ideas, reassembled into novel forms and applied in novel ways to contemporary challenges.
Now if we were to simply conclude here: “great innovators tend to have an eclectic apprenticeship in, and study of, the past – and so you should too”, we aren’t learning anything valuable or actionable.
The study of the past, in and of itself does not necessarily produce innovation.
There are plenty of folks with an encyclopaedic knowledge of facts but no capacity for creation. Perfectly capable of mimicry but not originality.
So what separates innovators from imitators? Or more precisely: what is it that innovators learn from the past, that imitators do not?
In a word: principles.
Where the imitator learns surface facts, the innovator extracts and absorbs principles.
Innovators do not learn just the form or facts of the past. They deconstruct the motivation for the form’s success, why the form is effective, why it has survived and been passed down by tradition.
They reflect critically on what aspects of that form were contingent on the time, place and audience – and which are universal.
TS Elliot describes this stance as an “historical” sensibility. “A sense of the timeless as well as the temporal, and of the timeless and the temporal together”. A capacity to recognise what is universal and axiomatic about the past, and discover analogies to the contemporary.
Let’s talk product design.
Julie Zhou, who leads design at Facebook, writes here:
“A great designer starts with the whys. She conveys the principles behind her thinking and leaves you feeling you understand the core values from which all her decisions flow”.
A product is a cohesion of features. A feature is a good feature if it is useful, appropriate and usable. Properties that emerge directly from the specific needs and problems of the user.
As a product designer, if you can understand the needs and problems of your market, and distill them down to the level of principle, then all product decisions can derive from and reflect that understanding. Features will be, at a minimum, appropriate and useful – and the product cohesive.
Among those starting new technology businesses, there is a fear of the “fast follow”: a competitor emerging who blindly apes all that you’ve already done, leap-frogging the expense of your research and development.
But in the long term, these copy cat companies can’t survive. They reproduce features from a competitor product, without understanding the underlying principles that gave rise to their particular form.
When the world changes, when the commercial or cultural landscape shifts, and the product needs to adapt to reflect this – copy-cats don’t know how.
Think here of the many products who tried and failed to “tack on” social features, after the emergence of Facebook as a modern powerhouse. The copy-cats didn’t have a proper understanding of what was actually driving user behaviour. They confused the surface form (“You can, like, add friends, and like things”), with the motivations and principles that gave rise to that form.
Copy-cat companies are perpetually one step behind. Unable to absorb the principles that make competitor features work, they can only progress once their competitors have already progressed.
Mimicry can solve a single problem, but a principle can solve an entire class of problems. Like the old saying goes: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for life”.
There is a final, but important distinction to make here: the innovator’s relationship to the past is not only about depth, but about breadth.
Insights can come in all shapes and sizes, from all kinds of disparate domains and disciplines.
Take the Steve Jobs examples we mentioned earlier: calligraphy and Japanese Zen Buddhism? A far cry from business case studies – and yet they inspired hugely impactful product innovations.
Innovators have a habit of generalist learning, unrestricted to a particular discipline, category or subject.
I’d argue that much of what constitutes “originality” comes from connecting ideas and principles from (seemingly) disparate domains of knowledge. Not invention, but connection.
This cross-pollination can serve not only as a foundation for successful art and products, but can extend directly to how one understands their business at the most macro-level.
Take a note from Charlie Munger – one of the most successful investors in recent history, and Warren Buffet’s long-time partner in Berkshire Hathaway.
Munger implores business students to have a multidisciplinary approach in their thinking: “you need a latticework of mental models in your head… You don’t have to know it all. Just take in the best big ideas from all these disciplines”.
In Munger’s view, a business does not exist in a theoretical vacuum. It is not merely a profit-and-loss sheet. It exists as a node within a living ecosystem of commerce, economics, science, technology, politics, society etc.
Therefore, to understand a business’s likely propensity to flourish or falter, one needs to have at a least basic understanding of the myriad forces which shape that ecosystem.
To sum it all up: great innovators, great disrupters, are those with the ability to curate the past and present, to extract what is most salient and relevant, and apply those principles to contemporary problems.
So what can we do if we want to foster our own innovative spirit?
Firstly: be a learner. An habitual learner. Be broad and non-discriminatory in your learnings. Go with your curiosity. Follow where it leads.
Secondly: be critical about what you learn. Tease apart what is contextual in the things you learn, from what is universal. Extract the principles that animate them, and make them sing.
Finally: be a connector. Find the analogies between the principles you discover, and the problems you are looking to solve.
The past is a wellspring of ideas and insights. The accrued knowledge and insights of a long line of great minds. And we, the potential innovators of the future, are the beneficiaries of all that history.