I’d like to tell you a story, a very ancient story — in fact, it’s the oldest story there is… For 4.6 billion years the natural world has been creating and recreating itself through a magnificent superpower called evolution…
Close your eyes for a second and imagine that exact instant in which the very first single-celled organism — let’s call her…how about…NanoEve? —was called into being…
Pop! And then there was one, as the saying goes.
At that very moment, nature had begun a journey that would lead all the way from the site of that first humble origin to the remarkable reality of the Hubble Telescope rocketing into space billions of miles away.
The Second (Hidden) Superpower
Now I know that it might seem strange to you to hear two very different things like “single-celled organism” and “the Hubble Telescope” placed right next to each other as examples of “evolution” — but if you think about it, natural evolution played an essential role in both of those miraculous occurrences.
Here’s the logic: humans, of course, are the result of nature’s superpower, evolution (as well as a creation of God, if that happens to be your belief system); and since the Hubble Telescope is a result of human genius, we must give nature a fair share of the credit.
This story of nature’s evolutionary superpower also illuminates yet another superpower — hiding in plain sight and waiting patiently to be recognized as equal to evolution in complexity and power and splendor.
That second superpower is the human capacity for innovation…
Evolution and Innovation — the Twin Engines of Change That Have Shaped our World
Innovation is the human superpower — our superpower — just as evolution is nature’s superpower.
When nature wants to reimagine and recreate herself, she (and yes, I know that’s a gender-normative usage, but “she” is so much more poetic than “it”) brings out the evolution superpower, and conjures up marvelous things like oceans, dinosaurs, rainforests, blue whales, mountains, elephants, canyons, dolphins, and, well, all that other stuff that we love to visit on weekends and vacations.
Commensurately, when we humans want or need to reimagine and recreate our world, we bring out our innovation superpower, and the next thing you know we’ve got the stone hand axe and the wheel and currency and democracy and Magna Carta and the printing press and Shakespeare and global exploration and the Enlightenment and the electric light and the automobile and the Jazz Age and the atomic bomb (well…no system’s perfect…) and the United Nations and the Beatles (but not the solo stuff) and the Walkman and Seinfeld and the Internet and the Web and the Cloud and…well, you get the picture…
So…if this essay came with a whiteboard (now there’s an idea!), I would now do a little diagram putting these twin concepts right next to each other, like so:
NATURE SUPERPOWER: EVOLUTION
HUMANS’ SUPERPOWER: INNOVATION
Leaving aside the chronological differences — i.e., evolution being 4.6 billion years old, while humans have been innovating for only (“only”) 3.5 million years old —and we can see the deep parallels between these two immensely powerful forces that have shaped our world.
But evolution and innovation are also very different in another critical way — and this other difference between them is the very crux of this essay…
The Neglected Superpower — and the Urgent Need to Resurrect It
Here’s the difference: while nature has used evolution faithfully and consistently, we humans have sadly neglected our own superpower, innovation, using it, at best, sporadically and infrequently.
How do I know this?
I, Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, am a Proud Innovation Nerd…
I’ve spent the past seven years obsessively studying the 3.5 million-year history of innovation — starting with, you guessed it, the stone hand axe, as well as 349 other innovations — and developing a cohesive methodology to help people to actually do real innovation.
This methodology also draws upon another massive dataset — the greatest source of innovation in our own time: Silicon Valley/San Francisco, which has been pouring its world-changing innovations out into the rest of the planet for about 60 years. Through its disruptive emerging technologies (think silicon chip, the Apple Mac, the Web, the iPod, the Cloud, the iPhone (seeing a pattern there, down in Cupertino?), and its unique business culture (where VC and angel funding beget startups, which become unicorns and then, often massive tech giants like Intel, Apple, Adobe, Google, Pixar, Twitter, Salesforce, Facebook, Airbnb, Tesla, etc.)
And right now, we’re drawing upon the brilliance of yet another, mostly neglected, source of insights about innovation: Nobel Prize winners, who are often extremely innovative in their work, and whose unique styles of thinking, working, and innovating are surprisingly relevant to anyone looking to do real innovation.
Now, with that little bit of context, let’s get back to proving the case that we humans have tragically neglected our own superpower, innovation…
If I was only looking at those three specific datasets on innovation — the Great Historical Innovators, the Silicon Valley/San Francisco Innovators, and the Nobel Laureate Innovators — I would argue that we’ve neglected this superpower, because even with all that innovation, over the course of 3.5 million years, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, in terms of pure numbers, the percentage of people who have ever innovated, even once, since innovation was, well, invented, is infinitesimal. Like, closer to 0% than 1%. Nil. El zilcho. Nada.
Another way to put this would be (and I hope you’re sitting down because this one is hard to swallow): the great preponderance of human being who has ever lived has never, ever innovated. And what’s more (maybe you should stand up a bit, you know walk around a bit, for this one), even the people who have innovated usually only do it once.
Simply put: almost no one has innovated, ever.
Clark Kent, 2018: He’s Got the Power of Superman and the Bravery of…Well… Clark Kent
We could just call the above the judgment of history; and yet, there is still one more innovation dataset to draw upon — a fourth source of insights about innovation, that only reinforces this argument that innovation is the human superpower that we (almost) never use.
That dataset is: the corporate world.
By this I mean the realm of large corporations all over the world, who, for the past twenty years, haven’t been able to stop talking about innovation, and yet find themselves utterly (generally) incapable of actually doing any. Innovation, that is.
My experience in this weird realm is, I think, just as extensive as my experience in those other three realms, and here are the stats…
Over the past seven years, I’ve done 500 innovation engagements with 200 companies/ organizations from 40 countries. Doing that has given me the chance to meet, talk with, work with, and try to innovate with tens of thousands of people who have either 1. come specifically to Silicon Valley/San Francisco, or 2. invited me to visit them wherever they are in the world.
In terms of that whole “10,000 hours means some level of expertise metric” (which I kind of get but still have some issues with), I passed that mark years ago (he said innovation-nerdishly), and my conclusion about whether or not we’re using our human superpower of innovation is exactly the same as for those other data sources: no, we’re not.
So how many corporate executives — even the exceptionally bright, creative, ambitious, and powerful corporate executives, including, yes, CEOs — have ever really innovated in their careers?
You guessed it: very few. In fact, almost none.
And how many are innovating right now, as we speak — or at least working to create the kinds of environments, cultures, processes, and measurements that will, someday, enable real innovation.
Re-Embracing Innovation: The Resurrection of our Natural Human Superpower
So far I’ve tried to convince you of two basic points: first, that innovation is the human superpower, equivalent in complexity and power to nature’s superpower, evolution; and second, that we humans have essentially — and, as I will soon argue, needlessly — abandoned that superpower.
Now I’m going to extend this disquisition to a third argument, which I am designing as an explicit call-to-action (or better, a “call-to-neurons”).
And that idea is this: I believe that everyone — and that means all of us and each of us — doing any kind of work, in any kind of field, should think about ways to radically re-embrace innovation, and apply this superpower to their work, projects, companies, and careers — and particularly to what we sometimes call “our life’s work.”
The funny thing about such a radical prescription is that it’s really not that radical…
The people I’ve worked with do want to do innovative work, generally speaking. They want to look at things in new ways, and to connect, combine, and curate the evolving elements of their work world, thus creating new/never-seen-before products, services, programs, and experiences that excite and inspire people (and themselves); that can help their organizations through increased revenues, greater competitive advantage, better long-term strategic positioning, enhanced brand value; and that, sometimes, can have a positive impact on the world as a whole
I think, by and large, people want to innovate: after all, it’s an inexorable truth that the human world in which we live was basically created by this superpower of innovation — even if we’ve largely abandoned this remarkable capability that we have.
So, if people really do want to innovate, the next questions are: first, can they (everyone?!?) actually do it; and second, if they can, how can they do it?
To the first question, I answer an unequivocal “YES!” Again, I’ve worked with tens of thousands of people via these 500 innovation engagements, and that experience has taught me that this human superpower does exist in all of us — at different levels of course, like all other natural capabilities, but it’s at least present (dormant) in all of us.
Then to the second question, how can people innovate? Well, that’s a question I’ve spent the last seven years of my career trying to answer, through my innovation research, and the development of a specific, and now proven, innovation methodology called the Autodesk Innovation Genome Project. I know for a fact “how people can innovate” because I’ve seen them use this research to change their mindsets about innovation, and I’ve seen them use this methodology to help them actually do innovative work.
And this, Dear Reader, brings me to my final point, my final “Can I get a WITness!”-style exhortation…
I believe that if you are working right now, in any field, or in any function, you should be spending a full 10% of your working time on innovation.
Not learning about innovation; not being inspired by innovation; and certainly not preparing to innovate. But actually innovating, the real thing…
As Ali G. Might Say: Innovation — It’s Well-Important, Innit? 10% of your time should be spent on innovation…
I don’t think there’s a good argument against that precept — especially in 2018 when the “brilliant machines” are coming, e.g. robotics/automation, AR/VR, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and further down the line, things like quantum computing and mind/machine interfaces.
As the brilliant machines arrive in force, they will be doing two things to our working world: 1. Automating roles and processes; and 2. Augmenting our abilities.
And as that dynamic intensifies, I would argue anyone who is not spending at least 10% of their time on innovation — and let’s remember, in a conventional work week, that’s four hours; there’s no way you can look me in the eye, keep a straight face, and say, “No, Bill — I don’t see the value of spending four hours a week on innovation.”
I don’t buy it. I mean, what else are you doing all week? Meetings, emails, reports? Managing people? Being a leader? Okay, sure, those things can be very important; but still, I don’t care who you are — and that includes CEOs and heads of state all the way “down” to people just out of school or new to an organization — you need to spend at least 10% of your time on innovation.
Why? Because that makes sense on all levels…
On a personal level, doing real innovation, is almost always fun, energizing, enjoyable, liberating, and rejuvenating.
On the professional level, doing real innovation helps you in terms of the quality of your work (it will be much better, from a craftsperson perspective), as well as the success of your career (because real innovation does correlate with career success).
On the organizational level, doing real innovation also helps in terms of quality (or the organization’s work/output) and success (in terms of healthy long-term strategies and happily pulverizing your competition!).
And yes, even (especially) on the planetary level, it’s clear that we need real innovation more than ever.
The world is a mess, and it’s partly from a glaring lack of innovation. Yes, the innovations that we do see all around us have made the world better in many ways, but I think we would all agree that any list of “the current world’s problems” would scare the hell out of any sensible person.
We need innovation at the personal, professional, organizational, and planetary levels.
And to bring this all around back to the beginning, we, as humans need to innovate because our lack of innovation is basically destroying the miraculous accomplishments that nature has blessed us with/conjured up by using her superpower, evolution.
Nature and her superpower of evolution engendered humans and their superpower of innovation — and we need to recapture, to reclaim that innovative capability that we all have, for all the reasons enumerated above, but also, so that we don’t end up destroying the very planet where all this evolution and innovation has taken place.
Ralph Waldo Emerson: Innovation Consultant
So here’s my closing thought: you have a calendar. You have some discretion over how to use that calendar. You can say yes or no to people’s invitations. You can create your own meetings/invitations/appointments. You can go up on the roof for a few hours. You can tell your team that every Tuesday from 10-2, that’s our weekly innovation session! You can even bring in lunch — nobody leaves this room until we do something innovative!
We have to do this now.
On the personal front, many people are feeling disconnected, upset, and just plain weird about the way the world is changing — especially with the disruption of all those “brilliant machines” happening all around us.
On the professional front, I think you’re crazy if you don’t realize the massively positive impact real innovation would have on the quality of your work and the success of your career.
Organizationally, companies that innovate, and I mean really innovate, are always much more successful than their non-innovative competitors. And that’s true in the short-, mid-, and long-term.
And in terms of the planet, frankly, we’re running out of time. We need a lot more innovation, right now, to address not only climate change, per se, but all of those other “wicked problems” that we see all around us.
One of my intellectual heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote his seminal essay about “Self-Reliance” just as America was starting to really matter on the world stage, and thoughtful Americans were trying to figure out what it means to be “an American.”
The brilliance and power of that essay, and basically everything else he wrote, still reverberates in the American psyche today — and has actually spanned the globe, as people everywhere embraced, and still embrace today, his still-radical-today exhortation around self-reliance and all that that concept involves.
I think today, right now, in 2018, it’s time for a similarly radical rethinking about how we spend our time as we do our work.
We have to reclaim the natural human superpower of innovation.
We should be doing it for at least 10% of our time every week… I’ll be there, trying to innovate, next Tuesday, from 10-2.
Won’t you join me?
Bill O’Connor is the Founder of the Autodesk Innovation Genome Project — a 10-year research project studying the entire history of human innovation with the aim of identifying the essential techniques of innovation – as well as the Nobel Laureate Innovation Project, currently being developed at The Vault. Over the past seven years, Bill has delivered more than 500 presentations, workshops, and consulting engagements to hundreds of companies and organizations from 40 countries around the world, including Royal Bank of Scotland, Facebook, GE, Tesla, Airbnb, Renault, Google, Twitter, Starbucks, Nike, IKEA, Bechtel, Boeing, the US Naval Academy, the U.S. DoD, and the World Bank.