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Standing on Giant Shoulders

By john on July 12, 2017 in Innovation, Uncategorized

If I have seen further is in by standing on the shoulders of giants

Issac Newton 1675

Standing on the shoulders of giants – Wikipedia
The metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants (Latin: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) expresses the meaning of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”.[1] This concept has been traced to the 12th century, attributed to Bernard of Chartres. Its most familiar expression in English is by Isaac Newton in 1675.

During the course of writing these posts, I have come, as never before, to realize that innovation is time sensitive or perhaps better time bound.  Innovation happens in it’s own time and set of cultural factors.  This is not to say that innovation has no rational or intentional content.  Quite the opposite. While not an advocate for chance as a tool of innovation Louis Pasteur’s quote:

Chance favors the prepared mind

is certainly correct that preparation in the broadest sense is a condition of innovation. Innovation does not occur in the abstract, a vacuum or in an empty void.  Innovation is deeply rooted in a specific time and place and requires a set of prerequisites.  Cultural, intellectual and technological paradigms must “aligned” for a particular innovation to occur. Absent a prerequisite and innovation will not occur. Only an individual in that moment of time can recognize and seize upon the available elements of culture, intellect and technology.  Innovation is an in the moment recognition of of a particular set of parameters.  In retrospect, identifying these parameters is easy after all the innovation has happened.   The genius of innovation is recognizing, in that moment, that the time for innovation is now. The process of innovation and the innovator combine the existing “ingredients” to create, in effect, more shoulders to stand upon.  Innovation does not obliterate the past or present but requires and builds upon on the accomplishments of both to create a new and expanded present and to build a “bridge” to the future.

This is not some mystical or magical process. Given the insight of Newton: seeing farther and Pasteur: being prepared are crucial to innovation.  Innovation may occur over a period of time and involve many participants.  Innovation may require extensive thought and experimentation.  Innovation may not be pretty or beautiful until the actual end of the process.  Think of some common products today:

  • Airplane

  • Automobile

  • Personal computer

All of theses examples display the wild side of innovation. Think of all those goofy airplane prototypes.  Consider, look it up, all the individuals involved in creating the automobile.  Finally the PC, which was the real innovation: the Commodore 64, the TS 80, the Osborne or some forgotten early iteration of the product.

There is no neat and easy to categorize innovation or the innovation process. Sometimes the exact entity that was the “innovation” is not clear or the actual innovator may be a group of people.

With any mature product, those mentioned above or others, there is  a time when further iterations are not innovation. At some point in the lifeline of a mature product, function/feature enhancements occur. Function/feature enhancements can be a very good thing.  Just consider all the enhancements to all the above products and all the benefits from these enhancements.

Next:  the washing machine as an example of innovation and function/feature enhancement.



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