Byron's Babbles

“Innovation Happens Between The Ears”

I heard a great phrase from a retired U.S. Air Force General today. He said, “Innovation happens between the ears.” This quote was in reference to the story of the young Lieutenant George S. Patton developing a plan for making newly invented tanks into an effective tools for war in World War I in 1917. Tanks had not been effective yet because no one had taken the time, nor had the creative genius to figure out how to use the big, slow, machines that got stuck easily. Thus, innovation is not about the gizmo (in this case a tank); innovation is about how the gizmo is used to change the world.

I believe that the tanks mentioned above were just inventions, or worthless gizmos, until Patton got ahold of them and used them to innovate. In doing a little studying I came across the work of Canadian historian Benoit Godin. Godin attributes the differentiation between inventions/creations and innovation to a 1939 definition offered by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. He defined invention as an act of intellectual creativity undertaken without any thought given to its possible economic import, while innovation happens when individuals figure out how to craft inventions into constructive changes in their organizations, personal lives, or to change the world. This is why some believe, while use of the word innovation is at an all time high, actual innovation is on the decline.

It has taken innovation to take many creations, inventions, and failures into complete successes. There is a very thin line between brilliant innovation and absolute failure, and there are many famous examples. Examples that include: penicillin, slinky, Wheaties, plastic, pacemakers, and my favorite, Post-It Notes. The creation of a weak glue when Spencer Silver of 3M was trying create a super strong glue in 1968 was revolutionary. It took till 1980, however for the first Post-Its to be distributed. It took a little while and another 3M employee, Art Fry, for Spencer’s mistake creation to become an innovation that has certainly changed our world. Let’s face it, Post-It notes are everywhere.

In the context of change, innovation does not happen for innovation’s sake, but to find more effective ways of doing things. How about you? Are you creating gizmos and procedures, or innovating to create social change and break the status quo?

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