How to innovate (and how not to), part 1: Wait for the eureka moment

Where does innovation come from? And which method works best? Jihee Junn looks at the many and varied approaches to innovation in the first part of a new series.

Innovation is one of the most vital human endeavours. Over the history of humanity, it has made life incrementally better by almost every metric. And while we appreciate it in the abstract, the majority of us have little understanding of how it actually happens.

It’s also undoubtedly one of the most overused – and misused – words in the business world. And it’s so broad as to be almost meaningless, with different sectors – or different divisions inside the same business – often applying the term in their own way.

While there is an obvious attraction to the new, innovation isn’t always about large scale R&D projects or revolutionary business models. It can be small and iterative. As the famous case study of Lucozade’s repositioning in the UK shows, it can be as simple as adding a screw top, changing the packaging and eventually shifting the perception of the product from a medicine to a sports drink. Lucozade profited handsomely from this insight and went on to dominate the category.

In business, as in nature, the fittest survive. And we want to increase your fitness. So here lies Idealog’s definitive guide to different approaches to innovation, ranked for your pleasure.

Method 1: Wait for the Eureka moment

There’s a certain romanticism behind the notion of human triumph. We refer to the grand thinkers and masterminds of our time as geniuses, prodigies and intellectual wunderkinds. Perhaps it’s the influence of Hollywood and its celebratory plotlines, but there seems to be an overarching belief that the world’s best ideas are sudden and intuitive. Thomas Edison, after all, invented the lightbulb, his luminous creation now synonymous with the sudden moment of clarity. At the time, Edison described to a reporter that he’d been in his laboratory one night when he began rolling a piece of tarred lampblack between his fingers. His thoughts were elsewhere, but “his fingers were mechanically rolling … until it became a slender filament”. The rest is history.

It’s an attractive narrative, one that’s particularly rampant in cinematic depictions of ideas. In a pivotal scene of the award-winning film The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking suddenly realises that black holes emit heat when he mindlessly stares into an extinguishing fire. Films like A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting tell the tales of tortured geniuses whose indecipherable brains are the only ones conducive to the lightning bolt revelations of science and technology.

But how much of this holds historical weight? Archimedes is famous for using the phrase in the bath when he discovered the laws of displacement, but historians don't believe the story is true (it translates to 'I've found it', which is why the phrase was also associated with various goldrushes).

Edison’s notebooks also suggest a slightly different narrative, indicating that he’d considered carbon early on but discarded it when it burned up too quickly. A passage from the book Edison: His Life and Inventions, shows that inspiration usually requires perspiration. A friend, Walter S. Mallory, visited Edison and his researchers in his laboratory, where they had been working on the development of a nickel-iron battery for over five months. He recalled saying to Edison: “‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’ Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’”

Hawking was also building on a theory of black holes by two Russian physicists, a theory he subsequently worked on for months, not days. Even the fabled tale of Isaac Newton has its issues. As it’s often told, Newton was sitting under a tree when an apple fell on his head and the idea of gravity was born. But historians like Richard S. Westfall think otherwise, arguing that the story “vulgarises universal gravitation by treating it as a bright idea … but a bright idea cannot shape a scientific tradition.”

Instead of hard work and sacrifice, the eureka myth suggests either luck or genius. Thus, managers and leaders are at risk of overestimating the pace of development while underestimating the amount of perseverance needed. It’s why innovators are at pains to debunk the mythical assumption that innovation is just an epiphany waiting to strike.

Even so, everyone loves a good origin story, and myths can be helpful when it comes to promotion. When eBay started over 20 years ago, it came from a desire to create a perfect market economy where individuals could trade with one another. But its story struggled to attract attention from the media, so its founder, Pierre Omidyar, decided to create a more enticing alternative. Omidyar told people that he created the website as a means for his fiancée to trade PEZ dispensers. It led to one of the most popular company origin stories of the 1990s, albeit, completely fabricated. That didn’t work out too bad.

Idealog’s official rating: 6/10 – Convenient, but highly unlikely.