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Evolution and Innovation – where do Ideas come from?

September 17th, 2010 by admin Leave a reply »

I’ve recently been giving thought to the evolution of  ideas …and how they lead to innovation.

Peter Drucker, in his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, points to 7 “sources” of  organizational innovation – seven PLACEs where organizational ideas come from:

1) Unexpected consequences - there are many examples of this through history, but one well-known example was the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928 is a classic.

2) Incongruities – Drucker points out that whenever an industry has a steadily growing market, but falling profit margins for its participants an “incongruity” exits – and some company will eventually exploit this incongruity by inventing a lower cost or more efficient way to compete – for example, process innovations in the steel industry.

3) Process needs -the excample of the Guttenberg press, is to me a major change in process.  It was borne out of the need for mass-producing the Bible and other valued writings, and it allowed for a major shift in the process of putting these writings to paper.

4) Industry & market changes – often innovation is born out of competitive necessity – your company either comes up with a more innovative business model, product, marketing campaign…or you die.  A great example of this is – its cloud-based SaaS business model was more efficient for many customers than the competitors and it stole customers away from other players as it grew.

5) Demographic changes – in the mid 1990′s many first-time users were coming onto the web, causing a demographic shift to the Internet, which companies like Yahoo, Excite, AltaVista and Google created innovations around

6) Changes in Perception – we are living through a period in time right now, best described by Richard Florida as The Great Reset, in which Americans and Europeans are dramatically changing their perceptions of spending, real estate ownership, needs vs wants – and there are a variety of innovations that will likely be born out of this shift.

7) New Knowledge – many an invention has come from new knowledge of the materials, processes, or changing needs of the customer. For example, the computer chip invented by   Walk through the Computer History Museum in Santa Clara, CA and you can see many, many examples of how technology has progressed over the past 60 years as new knowledge of tubes, transistors, microprocessor became available through research labs.

One of the students in my UC Berkeley class claims an 8th source might be “male hormones” or pro-creation as he pointed out that the male species can be extremely CREATIVE in ways of approaching the opposite sex.

While this one seems a bit far-fetched to me, I personally believe that the Collective Conscience could be considered an 8th source of Innovation.  Jung first coined this term in pychoanalysis to refer to conscious thoughts and ideas that are not personal, but are a shared part of our culture or of being human. He called common ideas shared by humans “archetypes” and he claimed to find examples in his psychoanalysis of behaviors resulting from the “collective conscience” (a form of sub-conscience).   Ever wonder why several scientists seem to simultaneously come to a similar conclusion; or several entrepreneurs are working on a similar new product/service at the same moment in time?  My guess is that there is an element of our genetic make-up, that is embedded in the connections in our brains,  which is triggered by external/environmental factors.  When some change in our world occurs, or some challenge presents itself to the human species, a pre-destined response is elicited and the result is that a sort of “collective conscious” is released – several people in the right time, at the right place have the same epiphany.

How do Ideas Come About?
Whereas Drucker answes the question “From Where do Ideas Arise?,” he  does not quite answer the question of HOW ideas arise.  For example, one common view of new ideas is that they come about by some  sort of epiphany, stroke of luck, or being in the “right place at the right time.”  Newton was hit on the head with an Apple, Archimedes sat in his bathtub noticing how it overflowed, and the Reeses Peanut-butter cup came together when two people holding chocolate and peanut-butter collided :)

Perhaps it’s more Evolutionary than we think?

The invention of the world wide web is a good example to look at:  Tim Berners-Lee is credited with the creation of the world-wide web, and the general public views this as a major break-through innovation of the 20th Century.  But Berners-Lee seem to me to be the final/missing piece of a mosaic that included many other prior smaller discoveries. For example, the notion of “hyperlinking to other locations” had already been explored by teams at Apple, and researchers (Andy Van Dam and Norman Meyrowitz) at Brown University, well before it became a component of the WWW.  And the internet under-structure behind the WWW was long in place an used by ARPA and universities before it was exploited by Berners-Lee. The initial prototype website in 1991 and  The standards proposed by Berners-Lee in 1994 and beyond where the missing piece to the puzzle or mosaic of inventions that allowed for this “innovation” to take off.

And, all this was incremental and evolutionary.

Many major innovations in history seem to take this evolutionary path: electricity, the light-bulb, radio, television, the micro-computer, the Internet – all seem evolutionary and a product of several great minds.  There were a set of small discoveries made over time until such point that all the key pieces were in place for an “innovation” to occur.  A good example I like to use at UC Berkeley is the emergence of the PDA .

Many prior innovations added up to the innovation of hand-held devices or PDAs.  The Apple Newton device with its hand-writing recognition, the EO device (a start-up by industry veterans), and early prototypes at Xerox Parc.  But it was Jeff Hawkins and his team at Palm who put the final pieces of the puzzle together – using unique (Graffiti) software and the right combination of features – that lit the consumer market on fire with a new “innovation.”  Lots of smaller discoveries led to the success/launch of the PDA market.

I’d like to hear from others whether they believe innovation comes from serendipity, from epiphany, or from some series of evolutionary discoveries…



  1. Ralph-Christian Ohr says:

    Thanks for the great post – I really enjoyed reading it.

    Particularly, your 8th source of ideas made me think as it seems thinkable, though elusive.

    You describe innovation as series of smaller contributions / add-ups. What about discontinuous innovation – would you exclude non-evolutionary cases? How do ideas, bearing immediate innovation potential, come about? Epiphany then? ;-)

  2. Wesley Chen says:

    would it be cheating if I thought it is a combination of all three: serendipity, epiphany, and evolutionary discoveries?
    I believe that a lot of great discoveries were possible because all three were present when the discovery was made. First of all, evolutionary discoveries are crucial in discovering something since you are actively looking for something. If you are not looking for a solution, or an improvement of something, then even if the answer came and slapped you on the face, you wouldn’t know it. Secondly, serendipity and epiphany are also important. Some discoveries require certain technology and some require societal acceptance. Being at the right place and at the right time was necessary for those discoveries.

  3. admin says:

    It wouldn’t be “cheating” ….but can you think of any real-world examples of this?

  4. Antoine says:

    I have the feeling that the incremental character of an innovation is more linked to its definition than to its origin. Indeed, every innovation is related to the context in which it is born (historical, social, technological, but also innovator’s personnal context). This reference is fundamental in the description of an innovation because it enables us to qualify its most important characterization: its newness compared with pre-exiting ideas.
    Based on this observation, I think that every innovation can, by definition, be considered as an increment towards its context, and that differ from each other by the nature, the originality and the size of this step. In order to illustrate this, I would put into perspective the specific PDA example to one of the biggest discovery of all time: the evolution theory by Darwin. Indeed, I think that this tremendous discovery can also be considered as a (big) increment from pre-existing context in Natural Sciences (concepts of species and other classifications etc.).

    However, this reflexion does not tackle the question of how does this new step come? So, in my opinion, this comes from two sources (that can of course be considered at the same time):
    - a favorable context for innovation (technology, economy, society): this is connected with serendipity.
    - an ability for innovator to consciously or unconsiously detect an opportunity in an new association of idea: this can be related to epiphany.
    However, even if I think these two sources can work alone, I personally believe that most innovation come from combining them.

  5. Sean says:

    Real world example of combining serendipity, epiphany and evolutionary – the development of the drug Viagra.

    Evolutionary – the development of a drug to treat hypertension was based on previous innovation in treatment of the illness and the study of its mechanism.

    Serendipity – having a few participants in the study make a comments about experiencing erections after 4-5 days of drug use.

    Epiphany – realizing that the proposed enzyme inhibition is also a possible treatment for a proposed mechanism for ED.

  6. Nick Silver says:

    I actually think that successful innovations, the ones that make it in the marketplace, are the product of evolutionary discoveries that build upon older ideas. The story of the Apple Newton and the Palm Pilot handheld reminds me of a more recent product innovation dealing with both of these companies.

    In 2007, in an effort to revive lagging sales of its Palm Treo smartphones, CEO Ed Colligan introduced what he believed would be the perfect companion product to his company’s mobile devices. The product was called the Foleo, and was basically a companion notebook computer running Linux that would let its savvy business users access their personal smartphone data and information on a larger screen. Analysts and industry experts did not believe in the product from the get-go and Colligan canceled the Foleo a mere three months later.

    Almost three months later, Apple announces the iPad and the company cant keep the product in stock. I see Jobs’ innovation here with the iPad as a product that improved upon the failures of other earlier products that were shopped around years earlier (ie, the Foleo). Was it just that Jobs got it right or was it that the marketplace was finally ready for a product like this? While I definitely think its a combination of the two, I also believe that evolutionary processes are center here for innovation

  7. Anh Pham says:

    I think evolutionary invention is somewhat invention op top of invention itself, which is necessary to satisfy evolved customers’ needs/desires and is implementable due to evolved technology. As customers become more familiar with the product, they will have new needs on the product thus driving evolutionary/incremental innovation – like the evolution we see in iPhone 2G, 3G, 3Gs, 4. So would evolutionary invention sort of fall in to “process needs” or “changes in perception” sources?

  8. Lauren Kim says:

    Another real world example is the Post-It.

    Evolutionary – The Post-It was based upon the accidental discovery of a reusable adhesive.

    Serendipity – A colleague of the inventor wanted to put a bookmark in his hymnbook without damaging the delicate pages. He used a little bit of the adhesive to anchor the bookmark.

    Epiphany – He realized that after removing the bookmark, the adhesive did not damage the page and it could be repositioned. Wow, this would be useful at work. BAM! Post-Its were born. (Bookmark+adhesive=intersection?)

  9. Joel Vincent says:

    I think one problem with using the word serendipity to describe innovation is that people have different meanings when they use the word. It seems as though many people use it to mean luck or being in the right place at the right time. And yet the word actually has another dimension with specific implications in innovation. The wikipedia definition of serendipity states:

    “One aspect of Walpole’s original definition of serendipity that is often missed in modern discussions of the word is the “sagacity” of being able to link together apparently innocuous facts to come to a valuable conclusion.” So serendipity is as much a matter of being in the right place at the right time, as it is about understanding the significance of the existing situation.

    With this modified definition of serendipity, I certainly believe that innovation is often serendipitous. One great example in my mind is Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity. The discovery could have easily been made during Maxwell’s time if anyone had recognized that Maxwell’s equations were relativistic. And yet it took another 60 years for someone to build on the existing knowledge and come to the “serendipitous” discovery of relativity.

    In fact, with this definition of serendipity I would argue that all innovation is serendipitous. Virtually everything we do in a modern society builds on previous human experience (spoken language, written language, etc.). So to a certain degree any innovation is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but also recognizing the opportunity that the current situation presents.

    The real question that I think there is disagreement on is whether the ability to “link together apparently innocuous facts to come to a valuable conclusion” comes from hard work or inherent intelligence. I believe that hard work often plays a larger role than intelligence, but I can’t bring myself to completely rule out intelligence either.

    This also illustrates the importance of semantics when debating issues such as innovation, creativity and intelligence.

    P.S. Sorry for the brutally long post.

  10. “Science can only go so far, then there’s God.” (or just randomness?)

    I am surprised that no one, neither in class nor here, has mentioned the possibility of God or the equivalent as a source of creativity and innovation. A lot of people in the world believe in an all-knowing creator of life and universe. If that is correct, then innovation might be the result of a God deciding that it’s time for something new. Maybe we are all marionettes in the hands of something bigger than all of us. I can’t really make the case, but perhaps there is someone who can?

    In general, people seem to believe that they can control their lives, or at least their own thoughts. But, if we are a collection of biological material, in the end consisting of atoms and even subatomic particles we might not have a will we can control. I’m no expert in quantum physics, but I got the impression that there is a degree of randomness on quantum realm. If we ultimately consist of particles moving randomly, how can we ever claim to have a will? Maybe everything is just happening. What we think is our free will might just be a bunch of particles deciding to be in a certain place at that time.

  11. Nelbeebuzz says:

    Thanks for the great post – it certainly is an interesting topic to think about and continue to question. I would have to say that I don’t think there is one source or correct answer. Looking forward to more posts!
    Your friend from Twitter,

  12. James Eyton says:

    I particularly like Number 4 – Industry and Market Changes. Kenneth Sokoloff showed the pro-cyclical patterns in inventive activity measured by US patents between 1790-1846. With access to markets (such as the completion of the Erie Canal) inventive activity increased as the canal was completed and extended. Numbers of registered patents then fluctuated with changes in trade conditions. I worked on a thesis at the London School of Economics to measure this impact in the UK with the completion of the first railway and found the same to be true.

  13. Hoi Wan says:

    Collective consciousness , seems to be happening in what I`m currently doing. Working on a mobile photo sharing start-up and there seems to have been half a dozen of these startups created at around the same time!

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