Slow Moving Innovation
As word of the invention of the internal combustion engine first spread in 1870, owners and workers in the booming buggy-whip industry probably took scant notice. Maybe some prescient buggy-whip entrepreneurs saw the early writing on the wall — that this new invention would one day put them out of business. But most didn’t. Why would they? Mass production of the automobile — the coup de grace of the horse-drawn-carriage accessory industry — didn’t happen for another 40 years, when Henry Ford mass-produced the Model T on his newly invented assembly lines in 1913.
What’s the lesson learned? Innovation takes a long time — longer than most businesses realize or even want to admit. Richard Luecke, the author of several books from the Harvard Business Essentials series, defines innovation as “the embodiment, combination or synthesis of knowledge in original, relevant, valued new products, processes or services.” Within this “synthesis of knowledge” is a twisting vortex of new ideas that have to be extracted, implemented, and exploited in order to become real innovations. In other words, identifying new ideas is only the first step in a long process. Bringing them to market and then dominating that market is an entirely different matter.
Certainly, time scales are different for different industries, and there may be evidence of innovation happening in faster time cycles because of rapidly improved technologies. But innovation isn’t only about new technology. In fact, it’s mainly about culture. Humans are by nature habitual animals, and it takes a lot to move us off of our habits. Technology may be advancing quickly, but that doesn’t mean humans have the interest or the aptitude to adopt it right away.