Innovation – More Than Just a Good Idea!

Elon Musk has done it again; captured headlines across the globe, and got millions of people thinking – not about reusable rockets this time, but about solar panels and roof tiles.  Or more accurately, solar roof tiles.  Is this a master stroke of genius innovation, or is this just an inevitable step along a path that almost anyone could have made?

Well, it is likely a bit of both.  Let’s be honest, solar panels are unsightly and don’t cover the whole roof space; tiles can be more attractive but aren’t productive in the same way.  Determining that there is a case for a solar roof tile doesn’t require the mind of an eccentric billionaire entrepreneur.  But that is not typically how innovation works.  The advance of science and technology progresses at a steady pace, and along the way certain innovations stand out.  Take the telephone as an example.  Alexander Bell is widely credited for inventing the telephone and moving the world of communications forward by one enormous leap, yet that wasn’t exactly how it happened.

Alexander Bell filed his patent for the telephone in March 1876, Elisha Gray filed his telephone patent in February of the same year.  By this date, Daniel Drawbaugh had already been exhibiting, in his electrical shop, a prototype telephone for 7 years, and 16 years before Alexander Bell’s patent, Johann Reis presented his telephone to the Physical Society.  The romantic in us loves a ‘eureka moment’ story, a tale of one man and his ground breaking innovation.  The telephone story is a classic, yet digging deeper reveals that many inventions are made simultaneously, and are simply part of wider society’s journey of discovery.

What did set Alexander Bell apart, however, was his ability to execute and exploit the innovation.  Bell’s financial backing paved the way to make the telephone a success.  It is not purely the innovation itself that makes the difference, it is the ability to exploit it.  Take nothing away from Tesla and Elon Musk – his ability to innovate is impressive, (and comes with lots of lessons on never giving up and learning from multiple failures), yet it is the “engine” that he has created behind the innovation, which may change rooftops worldwide – Financial backing, astute marketing, and elegant design are as important as the technicalities behind the concept.

A digital revolution is upon us.  Innovation is rife; yet the individuals and organisations that will make the difference may well not be the ones with the best ideas, but those with the best engines to exploit the underlying innovations.




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