The Long Nose of Innovation

The bulk of innovation is low-amplitude and takes place over a long period. Companies should focus on refining existing technologies as much as on creation

In October of 2004, Chris Anderson wrote an article in Wired magazine called The Long Tail, a theory he expanded upon in his 2006 book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. In it he captures some interesting attributes of online services, using a concept from statistics which describes how it is now possible for the “long tail” of a low-amplitude population to make up the majority of a company’s business.

One of his examples came from music: A large quantity of often obscure but nonetheless listened-to music can outperform a much smaller quantity of huge hits. The implications of the phenomenon have been significant for those interested in understanding the meaningful attributes of online vs. brick-and-mortar businesses and the book has apparently had an enormous impact among executives and entrepreneurs.

A Mouse Family Tree

As with the Long Tail, the low-frequency component of the Long Nose may well outweigh the later high-frequency and (more likely) high-visibility section in terms of dollars, time, energy, and imagination. Think of the mouse. First built in around 1965 by William English and Doug Engelbart, by 1968 it was copied (with the originators’ cooperation) for use in a music and animation system at the National Research Council of Canada. Around 1973, Xerox PARC adopted a version as the graphical input device for the Alto computer.

In 1980, 3 Rivers Systems of Pittsburgh released their PERQ-1 workstation, which I believe to be the first commercially available computer that used a mouse. A year later came the Xerox Star 8010 workstation, and in January, 1984, the first Macintosh—the latter being the computer that brought the mouse to the attention of the general public. However it was not until 1995, with the release of Windows 95, that the mouse became ubiquitous.

On the surface it might appear that the benefits of the mouse were obvious—and therefore it’s surprising it took 30 years to go from first demonstration to mainstream. But this 30-year gestation period turns out to be more typical than surprising. In 2003 my office mate at Microsoft (MSFT), Butler Lampson, presented a report to the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council in Washington which traced the history of a number of key technologies driving the telecommunications and information technology sectors.

Understanding Immature Technologies

The report analyzed each technology (time-sharing, client/server computing, LANs, relational databases, VLSI design, etc.) from first inception to the point where it turned into a billion dollar industry. What was consistent among virtually all the results was how long each took to move from inception to ubiquity. Twenty years of jumping around from university labs to corporate labs to products was typical. And 30 years, as with the mouse and RISC processors, was not at all unusual (and remember, this is the “fast-paced world of computers,” where it is “almost impossible” to keep up).

Any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old. That doesn’t imply that the 10-year-old technologies we might draw from are mature or that we understand their implications; rather, just the basic concept is known, or knowable to those who care to look.

Here’s the message to be heeded: Innovation is not about alchemy. In fact, innovation is not about invention. An idea may well start with an invention, but the bulk of the work and creativity is in that idea’s augmentation and refinement. The newer the idea, the coarser the granularity of most analysis, and the more likely people are to say, “oh, that’s just like X” or “that’s been done before,” without any appreciation for how much work and innovation is involved in taking an idea from concept to wide practice.

Rewarding the Art of Refinement

The heart of the innovation process has to do with prospecting, mining, refining, and goldsmithing. Knowing how and where to look and recognizing gold when you find it is just the start. The path from staking a claim to piling up gold bars is a long and arduous one. It is one few are equipped to follow, especially if they actually believe they have struck it rich when the claim is staked. Yet the true value is not realized until after the skilled goldsmith has crafted those bars into something worth much more than its weight in gold. In the meantime, our collective glorification of and fascination with so-called invention—coupled with a lack of focus on the processes of prospecting, mining, refining, and adding value to ideas—says to me that the message is simply not having an effect on how we approach things in our academies, governments, or businesses.

Too often, universities try to contain the results of research in the hope of commercially exploiting the resulting intellectual property. Politicians believe that setting up tech-transfer incubators around universities will bring significant economic gains in the short or mid-term. It could happen. So could winning the lottery. I just wouldn’t count on it. Instead, perhaps we might focus on developing a more balanced approach to innovation—one where at least as much investment and prestige is accorded to those who focus on the process of refinement and augmentation as to those who came up with the initial creation.

To my mind, at least, those who can shorten the nose by 10% to 20% make at least as great a contribution as those who had the initial idea. And if nothing else, long noses are great for sniffing out those great ideas sitting there neglected, just waiting to be exploited.

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