The legend around innovation is filled with so called lightbulb moments of inspiration where the inventor comes up with a radically new way of doing things.
Alas, the evidence suggests something different. For instance, rather than radically new ideas, evidence suggests that most innovation is recombinative, or in other words, involves the combination of existing innovations in new ways.
Trial and Error
This more iterative approach to innovation was reaffirmed by a recent study from researchers at Reading University.
It found that a series of steady improvements via trial and error is key to innovation over a prolonged period of time.
The authors analyzed 5,000 years of innovation in the Bantu speaking farmers of Africa and it emerged that they primarily stuck to what they knew, remaining in environments that were familiar to them rather than striking out into alien territory.
When they did experiment with more radical innovation, their rate of migration was slowed by up to 300 years, reflecting the challenges they faced in adapting to this new environment.
What Does This Mean for Us?
The findings suggest that innovation is somewhat harder than we perhaps like to think, especially when undertaking the radical innovation that is so much more fashionable than the iterative and recombinative kind.
“Despite being modern humans with the intelligence and skills to adapt, the Bantu seemed to choose routes that kept them in familiar environments. Exploring exactly how this happened provides crucial evidence of how humans go about developing ideas and new technologies,” the authors say.
They believe that their findings have strong lessons to teach us about how innovation happens more widely. With innovation being primarily a cultural activity, the challenges inherent in making changes are fairly universal.
“From Watt’s steam engine design to Edison’s lightbulb, history is replete with the ‘genius’ inventor. But those amazing feats were not developed in a "Eureka moment". Watt’s engine was more a redesign more than an invention. Edison’s notebook reveals that he tried thousands of filament materials before alighting by chance on his favoured material.
“Very little has changed. Even today, science and business rely on groups pooling their knowledge and skills, and even then many groups cannot compete. Innovation is hard even for the most intelligent species on Earth,” the authors conclude.