Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Myth of The Outsider

Innovators are by nature curious people with a strong desire to improve the world around them.  Upon encountering a problem, an inconvenience, or a task too cumbersome, instinctively they seek to find a remedy for it.  That drive has been at the foundation of innovation since the invention of the wheel, the first disruptive technology shaped by man (fire and stone tools were not invented, were "found" and nurtured).

Since then, innovators have nurtured the romantic idea that a single bright mind can find an answer to a vexing need and be recognized (financially or otherwise) for it.  Over the centuries it has certainly occurred, but in modern day, that notion may not hold as well. I lost count of the many ventures I have seen presented whose business plan calls for commercializing  Joe-Invenor's "idea or solution" the viability of which has was vetted only by Joe's friends and other supporters devoid of domain knowledge and experience.

Indeed, "people from outside the industry" have, occasionally, succeeded in seeing solutions insiders did not, but I believe those were the exceptions, or, more often, that conclusion was reached with incomplete information.  For instance, in the popular culture many believe the myth of: "bright college drop out (Bill Gates) develops a computer operating system that mighty IBM could not, thereby creating a bright new world".  The reality, however, is that Gates, due to a most unlikely coincidence, had over 10,000 hours of programming experience before going to college, was indeed very bright, and dropped out to make a microcomputer version of a programming language (BASIC) previously developed by others when Gates was 9, not an operating system.  The staggering success that followed came thanks to a lot of hard work to be sure, but also more coincidences, personal and family connections, quick thinking and, in the end, the wisdom of assembling a team with the brightest industry experts. IBM conversely had all the resources and talents to make their own solution, but simply chose the buy vs. make route. Due to more coincidences it unwittingly helped a major competitor to be born. A similar review would correct the popular myths on the birth of Google or Netscape or Apple and others.

If we dig deep enough for details, there are very few demonstrable cases of successful innovation by an "outsider" blessed with "new eyes" vision. Invention is another matter since invention (including a patent) requires only a "novel idea" with no consideration to any practical implementation potential, let alone actual implementation.  The world is covered with ideas. Most do not see even an attempt at implementation because that requires hard work well beyond "imagineering". A few ideas see implementation only to die early for lack of  practical underpinnings, or of a value proposition that moves customers to act (these are the solutions in search of a problem).

Today, innovations cannot stand alone.  They have to integrate in a complex web of interfaces, other products, services, regulations, business processes, cultures, vested interests, user habits, etc.  On its own each "new idea" may be commendable, but, if its implementation requires changing the world all around it, it is probably dead on arrival.  The same goes for creating new standards or modifying existing ones.

New eyes may appear to see new solutions, but, often, only because they do not see the reasons why the new idea cannot interface well enough with the reality around it.  The only fix for that blind spot is to bring into the team the best domain experts available.

Experts are those that through practice had the opportunity to learn all the interfaces required for any system component to fit its ecosystem. Often they will show why "it" won't work.  I those cases, be grateful: avoiding wasted time, which is even more important than avoiding wasted money.  In the best cases the domain expert may suggest modifying the "new idea" and make it possible to be more than a flash in the pan.

Inventiveness creates ideas.  Innovation creates results through inventiveness checked by practicality.  Beware the single minded genius, particularly yourself.

Whether the entrepreneur or the an angel investor doing due diligence, involve domain experts if you are an outsider. It will lower your risk.

Marco Messina

1 comment:

Veeds of Arabia said...

Excellent points and a very good headline too.

There's often a very good reason for a particular innovation not being practicable. On the other hand, sometimes ignorance of why something won't work allows people to move forward and get the project done when wiser heads are all saying "Can't be done." As an example, my sister and niece wanted to visit me in Saudi Arabia for a few days. If I had known at the time that it is nearly impossible to arrange the visas, I would've just advised them to forget the project. Fortunately, the higher ups at my institution held their tongues and didn't discourage us. When the visas came through (at literally the last minute), people started shaking their heads in amazement.

Of course in this kind of instance, the risk of being wrong is limited to disappointment and wasted personal time, not someone's life savings.