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How to innovate (and how not to), part 3: Try, try and try again

If you can’t find your God, you need to pray at the temple of evolution instead. In his 2011 TED Talk, economist Tim Harford criticised the God Complex and instead provided a better, more practical solution: trial and error. “I’m not trying to say we can’t solve complicated problems in a complicated world. We clearly can. But the way we solve them is with humility – to abandon the God Complex and to actually use a problem-solving technique that works. And we have a problem-solving technique that works. Now you show me a successful complex system, and I will show you a system that has evolved through trial and error.”

It sounds like common sense, and Harford has been criticised for stating the obvious, but, he says, it’s actually not that obvious. “I will admit it’s obvious when schools start teaching children that there are some problems that don’t have a correct answer. Stop giving them lists of questions every single one of which has an answer. And there’s an authority figure in the corner behind the teacher’s desk who knows all the answers. And if you can’t find the answers, you must be lazy or stupid. When schools stop doing that all the time, I will admit that, yes, it’s obvious that trial and error is a good thing. When a politician stands up campaigning for elected office and says, ‘I want to fix our health system. I want to fix our education system. I have no idea how to do it. I have half a dozen ideas. We’re going to test them out. They’ll probably all fail. Then we’ll test some other ideas out. We’ll find some that work. We’ll build on those. We’ll get rid of the ones that don’t.’ When a politician campaigns on that platform, and more importantly, when voters like you and me are willing to vote for that kind of politician, then I will admit that it is obvious that trial and error works.”

The pace of innovation today is intense, and there’s an expectation among both customers and investors for consistent and tangible breakthroughs. But the importance of incremental innovation is often underrated and Harford believes the process of trial and error is “actually far more common in successful institutions than we care to recognise”.

Earlier this year, Apple unveiled a new version of iOS that, despite being one of the biggest iOS releases ever, had only the slightest of alterations: a better Siri, a smarter QuickType, a revamped home screen and more emojis. It’s reminiscent of how Jony Ive, Apple’s design chief, once described ‘focus’, calling it the ability “to say ‘no’ to something that, with every bone in your body, you think is a phenomenal idea … but you say ‘no’ to it because you’re focusing on something else.” To focus is to refine on what’s already there. Little is big, less is more. It’s been the company’s philosophy for years, encapsulating the simplicity and refinement consumers expect from Apple designs.

Innovating isn’t always about breakthrough moments or visionary leaders. Former chief solutions officer at Yahoo, Tim Sanders, puts it plainly: there are no eureka moments, only “little ideas that combine with other little ideas that improve themselves into game-changing ideas.” This snowballing effect has similarities to another less well-known phenomenon that Steven Johnson, author of How We Got To Now, calls the ‘hummingbird effect’. In contrast to the much popularised ‘butterfly effect’, in which an unknowable chain of causalities occur, the hummingbird effect posits that an innovation in one field can end up triggering small, yet significant changes in a different field altogether.

Johnson writes that with the hummingbird and flower, “while they are very different organisms, with very different needs and aptitudes … the flower clearly influences the hummingbird’s physiognomy in direct, intelligible ways”. One example he cites is Gutenburg’s printing press. Revolutionary in itself for making books accessible to the masses, it also had an effect on a seemingly unrelated field—by causing a rise in the demand for spectacles.

Idealog’s official rating: 9/10 – Often dull, time-consuming, but, overall, the most effective approach.

Method 1: Wait for the eureka moment

Method 2: Follow the word of God

Review overview