From creation myth to the reality of innovation today

On the surface, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest article for The New Yorker, “Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation“, is a story about the mouse and how inventions travel – and evolve – across time and place. But examined more deeply, the article is really about the factors that determine whether you end up with an invention or an innovation.

Simply put: “invention” is the manifestation of an idea or creation of something new. It doesn’t become an “innovation” until it’s applied successfully in practice – i.e., it reaches the market and impacts people’s lives.

The story of PARC – and for that matter, any other innovative company – is indeed a mix of hopeful inventions, world-changing innovations, and missed opportunities, as Gladwell observes. We agree with many of the key points illustrated by the anecdotes and quotes in his article.

But there’s more – in contrast to his thesis that there’s a clean split between invention and innovation, and that companies are structurally limited in their innovation opportunities – we believe that there is now a framework that allows companies to innovate beyond their comfort zones and existing infrastructures. It’s called open innovation.

On the challenges of invention and innovation

But first, we want to highlight some of the key points that really resonated in Gladwell’s article, along with our observations based on PARC’s experience from being in the business of innovation today:

1. Adding limits or constraints can actually create more – and better – innovations. As Gladwell observes, Apple wanted to build a popular vs. a personal computer. So Steve Jobs pushed his designer by adding constraints to the mouse such as low price and high reliability. We’ve found that you don’t have to “turn the &*^%$;# tap” of creativity off – but you can focus the tap by imposing constraints (in our case, these often come from our clients reflecting their product or service strategy). These constraints motivate creative ideas that reduce complexity, improve user experience, and help reach the target price – whether it’s a $15, $300, $3000, or $16000 prototype.

2. Success requires failure. There are all sorts of pithy sayings about this out there – and not surprisingly, they’re true! Since the number of successful ideas that emerge is a function of the volume of failed ones, you need both a learning-based culture and a portfolio of innovation investments to help manage return vs. risk.

3. Operational management often values the cost of a “shovel” over the possibility of a “gold mine”. That’s because it’s easy to quantify a known cost (i.e., a shovel), but hard to agree on the value of a risky future possibility (i.e., a gold mine). But sometimes you have to trust the intuition of your experts and then continually test your assumptions along the way. [One strategy we use at PARC is a real options approach, which meters investments over time based on assessing probabilities of success as we learn new information. This approach is much better than net present value for evaluating the cost – and potential return – from an R&D project.]

4. Inventive creativity can’t be measured by spreadsheets. Yet if one wants to move the outputs of such creativity from invention to innovation, projects do need to be managed for different types of technical, market, and execution risks over time.

5. Thinking inside the box for years (e.g., lasers) is crucial to thinking outside the box when opportunity arises (e.g., laser printing). Especially when that opportunity arises from combining deep expertise from multiple disciplines (e.g., lasers + printing) to address a novel problem (e.g., the need for remote printing without requiring physical contact). Only then does chance favor the prepared expert mind.

A note on the popular story of the mouse

Speaking of the “expert mind”… There’s a nuance that’s often forgotten in popular retellings of the story of the mouse.

As Gladwell describes, Doug Engelbart‘s pioneering work on the mouse at SRI inspired the researchers at Xerox PARC, who connected it to their PC with the goal of making computing personal (vs. mainframe) and accessible (vs. command-line interface). The really interesting revelation, however, is why the Xerox PARC researchers chose the mouse.

Because in reality, they had multiple pointing devices to choose from.

Here’s what happened: Xerox PARC scientist Stuart Card examined how easily a person could hit a given target (in this case, moving a cursor to manipulate the GUI) by applying a then little-known model of human movement called Fitts’ Law. What he found: the mouse as pointing device was almost as effective as if using one’s hand. This finding not only led to the adoption of the mouse, but helped develop the field of human-computer interaction.

Good ideas usually go through a series of refinements as they encounter people with different perspectives and objectives, but there’s something valuable – and magical – about the expert mind that can connect and see possibilities across disciplines.

Now, on to finishing where Gladwell left off.

The missing piece: Open innovation

If Steve Jobs came to PARC today, there would be a much better understanding of his goals, our goals, and what we would want to accomplish – together – through open innovation.

Because that’s what’s different: open innovation provides a framework for these conversations and interactions. Through the pioneering work of Henry Chesbrough and others, there is now widespread awareness and practice of Open Innovation as a means for companies to leverage inventions and innovations from external parties. This can range from simply licensing IP (from or to others) and relying on outside organizations to help you see what’s possible, to co-developing and leveraging someone else’s investment to be tailored to your needs.

Simply put, open innovation institutionalizes and provides an alternative model for the uncharted do-we-or-don’t-we-let-him-in? model of a few decades ago. And why not? Drawing on one another’s strengths is a great way to not only reduce risk, but realize new opportunities, faster.

Instead of each party viewing “the problem from a different perspective” and carving off “a different piece of the puzzle” (as Gladwell notes), within an open innovation framework, each party can combine their perspectives and share the results of realizing the whole puzzle. That’s what we do today.

You can read Malcolm Gladwell’s May 16 article for The New Yorker, “Creation Myth”, here. Besides Gladwell’s take, many articles have been written about Xerox PARC and/or the Steve Jobs visit story; you can check out some of these here (Institute for the Future), here (Oxford Journals’ Industrial and Corporate Change), and here (Michael Hiltzik, L.A. Times – he also wrote the seminal book on the topic, Dealers of Lightning, which is cited by all of these articles).

We’d love to hear your reactions – or lessons learned about invention vs. innovation – in the comments below. We look forward to engaging with you!

— Sonal Chokshi, Lawrence Lee, Peter Pirolli

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