Update: Dr. Ronald S. Burt from the University of Chicago backs up everything written here and adds his idea about “structural holes” — the notion that people can find opportunities for creative thinking where there is no social structure. My favorite line: Don’t worry about people preempting your ideas because “people are like sheep eating grass. They’re so focused on what’s right in front of them, they don’t look for the whole.”
In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond takes a look at the diffusion of language writing systems. He notes that in our past we have surprisingly few root languages. He suggests two major reasons for this. First, devising a writing system is an immensely challenging undertaking when done from scratch. Diamond found that the most effective way to get a writing system is to copy one. The second reason is that the greatest competitive advantages of writing systems come from having one where none existed, not from incremental improvements. Basically, just having one is good enough, there’s insufficient incentive thereafter to make your own. Nothing mind shattering here but I do think Diamond’s thesis has implications for the way we view innovation today. When we need solutions we should look out first, then in. And when we don’t have one, any one will do, and you can fix it up later if you need to. But, there’s some more lessons related to language we can learn from – in our search for solutions we seem to have this ingrained bias that causes us to ignore the innovations of other cultures.
Diamond points out that there are clear competitive advantages to having a writing system:
“Knowledge is power, hence writing brought power to modern societies by making it possible to transmit knowledge with far greater accuracy and far greater quantity of detail from a great distance.” Of communication from monarchs to merchants, usability of maps, and commands during war: “these types of information were transmitted by other means in pre-literate societies, but writing made it easier, more accurate, and more persuasive.”
Illiterate societies were living right beside literate ones. And when wars started, the literate societies won. How come one culture could read and write while their neighbours didn’t have a clue? It seems innovation is somewhat of a cultural phenomenon.
Diamond shows that attitudes to innovation vary enormously within societies, on the same continent. He compares tribes within New Guinea, North America, and Australia to show that side-by-side tribes often have opposite attitudes to innovation. And in nearly every case, the innovating tribe enjoys great advantage. Innovation also varies within societies over time. For example, Islamic societies today tend to lag technologically, but they were, at one time, leading the world in innovation. Islamic societies had the highest literacy rates and adopted technologies prodigiously: trigonometry, metallurgy, mechanical engineering, paper, and gunpowder. Only after 1500 AD did the flow of innovation flip to European nations.
So here’s what to do if your culture lacks innovation. First, find a sales guru. Second, copy someone else’s invention.
- Diamond thinks one of the conditions of innovation is having sales-savvy entrepreneurs. He suggests the old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention”, may not be sufficient. He would have us add: Innovation is often in search of a salesman. Using examples like gasoline as a waste product, sand turned to glass in fireplaces, and even discarded tins cans put to use by New Guinea tribes – Diamond suggests that in many societies “an inventor he has to persuade society to adopt innovations. Merely having bigger, faster, more powerful devices is no guarantee of ready acceptance.” To be accepted the invention needs to be economically advantageous compared to existing technologies, offer social value and prestige, and these advantages must be easily observed. Basically, if it doesn’t bang you on the head with obvious, immediate advantages – it’s not going to sell itself.
- Having sales people isn’t enough. There’s got to be some inventions to sell. But where to get them? Somewhere else. Diamond observes that by setting innovation as a random variable, over a large enough area, at a particular time, a portion of every society is very innovative.
If half the challenge of innovation is communicating its value and someone else is always innovating, then building creative teams may not be nearly as efficient as building widely cast, open-minded sifting technologies to scour the universe for innovation hotspots and blueprinting those technologies for use at home. As Diamond says, complex innovations are best borrowed, not built. Because technology begets technology, the value of diffusion often exceeds the value of original invention. This is good. It’s exactly what I think sift is for – sifting for things that work and cross-walking those lessons into areas that aren’t.
So there you have it – sift is efficient, helps make sales easier, and is more likely to result in success than any R&D investment. Sounds good to me.