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Why Innovation Is Combination

Innovation Is Combination

Innovation advisor Greg Satell explains why innovation happens when key concepts combine to make a very real impact and create change.

Much has been made about the difference between innovation and invention. One writer went so far as to argue that Steve Jobs’ development of the iPod wasn’t an innovation because it was dependent on so much that came before it. A real innovation, so the argument goes, must be truly transformational, like the IBM PC, which created an entire industry.

The problem with these kind of word games is that they lead us to an infinite regress. The IBM PC can be seen as the logical extension of the microchip, which was the logical extension of the transistor. These, in turn, rose in part through earlier developments, such Turing’s universal computer and the completely irrational science of quantum mechanics.

Innovation Is Combination

The truth is that innovation is never a single event, but happens when fundamental concepts combine with important problems to create an impact.

Transforming Alchemy into Chemistry

Everybody knows the story of Benjamin Franklin and his famous kite, but few have ever heard of John Dalton and his law of multiple proportions. What Dalton noticed was that if you combine two or more elements, the weight resulting compound will be proportional to its components.

The reason that Dalton’s obscure law became so important is that it led him to invent the modern concept of atoms and, in doing so, transformed the strange art of alchemy into the hard science of chemistry. Once matter could be reduced down to a single, fundamental concept, it could be combined to make new and wondrous things.

Dmitri Mendeleev transformed Dalton’s insight into the periodic table, transforming the lives of high school students and major chemical corporations alike. Michael Faraday’s chemical experiments led to his development of the dynamo and the electric motor, which in turn led to Edison’s electric light, modern home appliances and even IBM’s PC and Apple’s iPod.

Which of these are inventions and which are innovations? What’s clear is none are the product of a single idea, but are all combinations of ideas built on the foundation that Dalton created.

Merging Man and Machine

In the early 1960s, IBM made what was perhaps the biggest gamble in corporate history. It invested $5 billion — in 1960 dollars, worth more than $30 billion today — on a new line of computers, the 360 series, which would make all of its existing products obsolete.

The rest, as the say, is history. The 360 series was more than just a product, it was a whole new way of thinking about computers. Before, computers were highly specialized machines designed to do specific jobs. IBM’s new product line offered a wide range of capabilities, allowing customers to add to their initial purchase as their business grew.

When Fred Brooks, who led the project, looked back a half century later, he said that the most important decision he made was to switch from a 6-bit byte to an 8-bit byte, which enabled the use of lowercase letters. In doing so he merged the language of machines with the language of humans into a fundamental unit. In effect, the 8-bit byte transformed computers from obscure calculating machines into a collaboration tool.

 A New Era of Innovation

The confusion about innovation and invention reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how innovation really works. The idea that certain ideas are flashes of divine inspiration while others are merely riffs off of earlier tunes sung long ago fails to recognize that all innovations are combinations.

Over the last century, most inventions have been combinations of fundamental units. Many important products, from household goods to miracle cures, have been developed through combining atoms in new and important ways. Learning how to combine bytes of information gave rise to the computer industry and we’re now learning how to combine genes.

The 21st century, however, will give rise to a new era of innovation in which we combine not just fundamental elements, but entire fields of endeavor. As Dr. Angel Diaz, IBM’s VP of Cloud Technology & Architecture told me, “We need computer scientists working with cancer scientists, with climate scientists and with experts in many other fields to tackle grand challenges and make large impacts on the world.”

Today, it takes more than just a big idea to innovate. Increasingly, collaboration is becoming a key competitive advantage because you need to combine ideas from widely disparate fields. So if you want to innovate, don’t sit around waiting for a great eureka moment — look for what you can combine to create something truly new and powerful.

Greg Satell is a popular author, speaker and innovation advisor, who helps organizations grow through bringing “big ideas into practice.”  His work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc. and other A-list publications. You can find Greg’s blog at DigitalTonto.com and on Twitter @DigitalTonto. He is the author of Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age.

Greg Satell is a popular author, speaker and innovation advisor, who helps organizations grow through bringing “big ideas into practice.” His work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc. and other A-list publications. You can find Greg's blog at DigitalTonto.com and on Twitter @DigitalTonto. His book, Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change, will be released by McGraw-Hill in April, 2019.