Rimshot? Moonshot? So what?!? - Is ridicule as an indicator of innovation?

DrewCM's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, May 17, 2012

One of the greatest challenges for those working in the innovation space is the recognition of innovation in terms of impact. Many of us, and our clients if we are consultants, are seeking breakthrough innovations yet true breakthroughs seem few and far between. The promise of innovation might be market transformation yet most enterprises seem to be living on a diet of incremental improvements and half-step changes as compared to much desired second order changes. The path to innovation success itself is strewn with abject failures and comical shortcomings.

So what?

The nature of innovation seems to be a mad collision of present ideas and “what if?” responses based on available resources and compelling need, or at least the desire to respond to some perception of marketplace need. Yet many of the great public innovation triumphs are built on the wreckage of past innovation failures and the actual breakthrough seems to sneak up on us out of nowhere. They appear as surprising outcomes that we explain in retrospect but when we are faced with them in the moment they might startle or confuse us, rarely delighting us with their utility or universality.

In point of fact some of these efforts appear to be jokes at first. In many cases it seems that ridicule is a prelude to the significance, and yes even the magnificence, of the innovation.

Before we got to: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." – Neil Armstrong, as he stepped onto the surface of the Moon, we had to endure these kinds of prognostications:

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." - Western Union internal memo, 1876.

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." - Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

"There will never be a bigger plane built." -- A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that holds ten people.

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." - Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C', the idea must be feasible." -- A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

iPad seen as a joke

Questions to consider:

  1. How often are breakthrough innovations perceived as jokes before they are accepted as genius?
  2. What is the value of ridicule in relation to breakthrough innovation? Are “Doubting Thomases” a necessary gauntlet for innovations to run?
  3. What innovations can you think of that were not ridiculed when they arrived on the scene? What differentiates them for other breakthrough innovations?
  4. What present innovations are we presently taking for granted? Why?

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Armstrong on the Moon
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