One of the big mistakes that smart people commonly make is to think that a great idea sells itself. If this were true, innovation would be fairly simple – just come up with great ideas. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy. Innovation is actually a process – you need to generate great ideas…
One of the big mistakes that smart people commonly make is to think that a great idea sells itself. If this were true, innovation would be fairly simple – just come up with great ideas. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy. Innovation is actually a process – you need to generate great ideas, you need to select the best ones and figure out how to execute them, and you have to get these executed ideas to spread.
These three steps are variety, selection and replication – that’s an evolutionary process. In fact, the history of the idea of evolution through natural selection provides a good lesson in how innovation is more than just coming up with great ideas.
We think of evolution by natural selection as Charles Darwin’s idea. However, the first public disclosure of Darwin’s big idea happened at a meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858 – and at that meeting two papers on evolution by natural selection were read. One was written by Darwin, and the other was written by Alfred Russell Wallace. One of the most powerful ideas of the past 200 years was developed nearly simultaneously by two people. And the initial impact of this great idea was, well, nothing.
It is a striking fact, remarked by Darwin himself, that when the Darwin/Wallace papers were read to the Lineean Society in 1858, nobody took a blind bit of notice, even among the profressional biologists of that august body. The end-of-year clanger of the hapless President of the Linnean, Thomas Bell, has become notorious and will ring on down the ages. In his review of the Society’s transactions during 1858, he said that the year had ‘not been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionise, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear’. The end of 1859 would have to be reviewed very differently. The Origin of Species struck the Victorian solar plexus like a steam hammer. The world of the mind would never be the same again, neither science, nor anthropology, psychology, sociology, even – and here come close to the dark side – politics. This book, which Darwin always described as the ‘abstract’ of the great book that he intended to write but never completed, achieved what the 1858 papers did not.
It isn’t that The Origin explained the theory more clearly than Darwin’s and indeed Wallace’s brief offerings of 1858. The difference was that a book-length treatment was required to muster all the evidence and lay it out for all to see: ‘one long argument’ as Darwin himself called it. And I quoted above Darwin’s own recognition, when the joint papers of 1858 fell flat, that ‘This shows how necessary it is that any new view should be explained at considerable length in order to arouse public attention.’
We think of evolution by natural selection as Darwin’s idea more than Wallace because of differences in their implementation of the idea, and in their efforts to diffuse the big idea.
Darwin was more effective at getting the idea to spread because his network was much, much better than Wallace’s. Darwin was friends with Hooker, Lyell and Huxley. It was Hooker and Huxley that arranged the joint presentation of Darwin’s and Wallace’s papers to the Linnean Society after Wallace submitted his before Darwin was ready to publish The Origin of Species. One of the reasons that Darwin became synonymous with natural selection is that he had pre-existing strong relationships with the people that needed to use and write about the theory. The modern lesson is that your network connections are critically important. When you try to get your ideas to spread, it helps tremendously if you are well-connected within the network of people that can use your idea (and this is true whether your idea is a product, a service, a way of doing things, or a theory).
The second reason that the idea of natural selection is more strongly associated with Darwin than with Wallace is that Darwin’s execution of the idea was much better, as Dawkins discusses. Wallace basically had the thought, quickly wrote it out, and sent the paper out. Darwin had been thinking about the idea for more than twenty years. He had carefully gathered evidence and arguments to support the idea, and he was able to demonstrate this support effectively. The modern lesson here is one that I keep hammering on – implementing ideas is much more important than having them. When you have your great innovative ideas, the value is in how you implement them. What business model will support the idea? What network will you put it in? What needs does the idea address? If you have better answers to these questions, your execution of the idea will win.
We still talk about Darwinism today because of Darwin’s network, and because of his strong implementation. The story of Darwin’s great idea shows that simply having the idea isn’t enough. You need to be able to execute it and get it to spread too. The innovation lesson is that you need to be good at all three steps to innovate effectively. Manage innovation as a process – if just having a great idea wasn’t good enough for Darwin, it probably isn’t good enough for you either.
What do you think?
Photo Credit: Brent Danley