If you come up with a technology for a hyper-space drive, you cannot compare it to other hyper-space drives. You have invented the only one. Rather, you can compare it to similar existing technology, such as rocket engines or ion thrusters. But these are very different things and so the comparison is difficult and may focus on the wrong criteria. Let’s look at several concrete examples.
Consider the Ford Model T, the car developed by Henry Ford. When it was launched in 1908, it was not the best car on the market. Indeed, other cars of the time were more powerful, more comfortable and more luxurious. But they were also very expensive; toys for the rich. As far as the middle class of the time was concerned, personal transportation options mostly involved horses.
Henry Ford’s innovation, of course, was to build a reliable and affordable car using a new manufacturing process: the production line. It cut costs through efficiency improvements as well as providing consistency from vehicle to vehicle. As a result, the Model T was the first affordable car for the growing middle-class. But at the time of its launch, its competition was the horse. Indeed, Mr. Ford famously said that if he asked his customers what they wanted, they would have told him a faster horse.
Early digital cameras produced very low-quality results. Even today, a good 35 mm SLR (single lens reflex) camera using film is capable of producing better quality images than nearly all digital SLR cameras. So, if people in the film industry were asked 10 years ago: Which is better, improved film or digital images, they would have answered “improved film.” The problem, in this case, is that they were looking at the wrong criteria: quality of images and ease of printing. However, digital photography has become the standard for completely different reasons: convenience, no need to buy film, ability to manipulate images immediately and ease of sharing images on the internet. In fact, most people do not care a great deal about the absolute quality of images.
Now, of course, the camera business is facing a new foe: telephones. If you go to many tourist sites today, you will see more people taking pictures with their telephones than with cameras. Sure, cameras can almost always take better quality pictures than telephones. But they lack the convenience.
If you look at breakthrough, and especially disruptive, innovation, you will see that the ideas behind the innovation were either so original they could not be compared to existing technology, or sufficiently different that, when compared to existing technology, they compared poorly.
If you are looking for truly original ideas, then you need to remove the word “best” from your evaluation process. Replace it with words such as “most creative,” “most original” or “zaniest.” Moreover, make it clear from the beginning that you are not interested in “best” ideas. Research has shown that when you tell people in a brainstorm that the best ideas will be rewarded, the ideas generated are less creative than when you give no such advice. However, if you tell people the “most creative” or “most original” ideas will be rewarded, then you see a much higher level of creativity.1
Not every idea you implement in your company needs to be a potential breakthrough innovation. You also need to improve your existing products, services and processes continually. In such cases, the best ideas may suffice. But when you are looking for high-level, breakthrough innovation, you need to seek totally new ideas and not simply the best idea.
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.
1 V.S. Gerlach, Schutz, Baker, Mazer, (1964) “Effects of Variations in Test Directions on Originality Test Response”, Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 55 No 2, pp 79-84.