We are fascinated by the innovators that dominate the headlines. Mark Zuckerberg, a social media hegemon, founding Facebook in his dorm room at Harvard. Elon Musk, ushering in a new era of electric vehicles and space exploration with his companies. Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, founding online e-commerce markets that came to dominate the entire globe. There is something ethereal about their innovation, and their accomplishments are ostensibly beyond our grasp. Most of us are content where we are – innovations are not for common people like us. Yet, is that really true? Ford’s attempts to explain to us the nature of innovation by pointing out its true essence – educated risk-taking. To be an innovator is to be ready to take educated risks in the hopes that the future you envisioned succeeds. Being an innovator can be easier than it seems.
To Ford, uncertainty abounded when the horseless carriage was introduced as a new mode of transportation. After all, it was slow, noisy, less efficient compared to a well-trained horse. There seems to be no reason to buy this expensive toy. Scepticism was in the air; failure is always looming on the horizon. Being an innovator means willing to bear with the uncertainty inherent in venturing into the unknown. The appeal of innovation comes from the commensurate reward given at the end of every risk taken.
What Ford was doing, however, was not gambling. Innovation does not mean taking foolish risks. Risks taken in innovations are always calculated. When Ford incorporated his company in June of 1903, America was already in the nascent stages of its automobile industry. There were over a hundred producers of horseless carriages in existence, following the successful production of the first working horseless carriage in 1893. Ford was not conceiving his innovation in the void. He was just one of many forerunners entering a newfound industry, his crucial innovation was in the creation of the assembly line process that allowed for cars to be mass-produced. To him, entering the industry was a risk, but one he was willing to bear when he saw the future awaited it. Innovation can often be misunderstood as pure creation – ideas appearing out of thin air. We often imagine an innovator as someone that comes out with a brilliant idea in a eureka moment and proceeds to make a fortune from it. That is not true. Most successful innovators are not people who create brand new ideas, but tiny, crucial innovations on existing ones. Having a new idea is not enough, the idea must be relevant to the needs of the market. Often, innovating in a new, or existing market is far easier than completely creating a new market.
Consequently, we should think about innovations in simpler terms, in terms of their constituent elements, lowering the barriers we set against becoming innovators. Rather than having to create something completely new and exciting, we merely need to make a small step in a pre-existing industry. People would have wanted faster horses, but aren’t cars the logical consequence of faster horses? Just like how the modern automobile is not created in a single day, the end-product we celebrate as a brand-new innovation is often the result of a series of small, incremental changes made by multiple different innovations. Facebook, after all, had Myspace as a template for them to emulate when they are starting their platform. Similarly, Snapchat and Instagram built on Facebook’s foundation to launch their own successful social media platforms. Rather than stressing on creating a complete revolution in the industry, all of us can be innovators when we innovation is just about making a small, crucial improvement. Being an innovator is not as hard as it seems.
The fundamental difference between faster biological horses and faster mechanical horses, or meaningful changes against iterative changes, is the lateral movement in ideas. Herein lies the secret sauce in innovation. Instead of trying to breed faster and faster horses traditionally, changing perspectives opened up another pathway to creating faster horses. Innovation occurs when an unconventional solution, no matter how small, is found to solve a pre-existing problem, offering us a new insight. Uber and Lyft took the pre-existing market for hired automobiles and considered how they could expedite the process by leveraging on the widespread availability of mobile devices. Rather than having more vehicles to increase coverage, they considered how they could use the existing vehicles more efficiently. While still operating a ride-hiring business, they now could access a market of users who would otherwise have not used a hired automobile without the convenience offered by their platforms. Adopting a varied approach to problem-solving is the essence of innovation. Innovation involves finding and synthesising new pathways to achieve a goal, not reiterating old ideas. As long as we are willing to approach problems unconventionally, we could be innovators.
Regrettably, the practical problem of risk-taking still impedes innovation. No matter how low the barriers are to being innovative, a barrier still exists. Risk is what prevents most of us from taking the step towards becoming innovators. We have too much to give up for us to consider innovation a choice. Our careers, our families, our finances, multiple considerations stop us taking the crucial step towards exploring unconventional and disparate options. Ford would be simplifying the ingenuity of mankind by implying that ingenuity only belongs to the select few. People have ideas, they are just anxious about expressing them. Taiichi Ohno, an engineer at Toyota, innovated further to create ‘just-in time manufacturing’ as a further improvement to the assembly-line manufacturing adopted by Ford, at a huge risk to his career. Not many of us would have the courage he had to innovate despite the risk. Innovation can be found everywhere, ideas can come to us at any moment, it is the expression of innovation that is constantly hindered by our fears and uncertainties about our ideas. We are afraid of what comes out of the innovations we have.
Furthermore, our access to expertise also limits how crucial our innovation can be. To successfully innovate in a field requires a huge amount of prerequisite knowledge. While it would not be impossible for someone to chance upon a breakthrough innovation, their ability to execute upon their innovation relies heavily on the expertise they have. The distinction between innovation and fiction comes from the ability to actualised the innovative idea. The world has no lack of vaporware that promises much but delivers none. Even if someone decides to be innovative, often the innovation falls flat on its face when the idea does not stand up to reality. Crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter have become notorious for half-baked ideas that sound impressive during conception, but fail in execution. The Ouya, for example, was an attempt at innovating on the mobile gaming experience on televisions, but eventually flopped when the product cannot fulfil the expectations set by the concept. Such incidents can in fact harm innovation, by dimming the enthusiasm individuals have in innovation and portraying innovators as a snake-oil salesman. Therein, we start to fear innovation, afraid of becoming the next big flop with our innovations.
Another misconception about innovation lies in the unrealistic expectations people have about what constitutes a successful innovation. Often, we judge ourselves by the most successful innovators that exist, only to be discouraged by the results we have accomplished. We need our innovative enterprises to reach the stratospheric levels of success popularised in modern culture before we are willing to acknowledge the success as such. That is impossible. All big, successful innovations are the culmination of many small innovations. There is innovation to be found in even the most mundane of events. Yes, people would have wanted faster horses, but in the pursuit of that simplistic goal, innovations have been made that eventually trickle down into creating the automobile of today. Don’t be discouraged that whatever you are doing now seems pale in comparison to what has been accomplished. While you may not be the one completing the final step, there is solace to be had in knowing you contributed to the answer.
We have been spoiled by the rapid progression of society in recent decades, expecting new ideas and innovations to occur yearly as they always do. Struggling to come up with bold and new ideas, we often constrain, rather than encourage, the innovative spirit within us. Ford, a forerunner of the automobile industry, is a rarity amongst innovators. Innovation can occur more simply, in the minutiae of our lives and careers, where we all can be innovators.