Innovation Evolution

Just as humans evolve, so too does the process of innovation. Humanity is slowly getting better at it simply because our brainpower keeps growing. The theory of evolution proposes that as species evolve, they exhibit increasing diversity at every level of biological organization, all the way down to individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins. So it would make sense that the evolutionary process would express upwards as well as downwards, in humanity’s most complex survival skill – ideation.

If we look at humanity’s slow rise from prehistory, there have been three waves, or bursts, or evolutionary acceleration. The first was the transition from hunting-gathering to the development of the agricultural age, propelled by man’s ability to fashion basic tools, like hammers, spears and plows. This happened roughly a few thousand years ago. The second was the industrial revolution, propelled by the invention of automation, assembly lines and organized workflow and standardization. This happened a few hundred years ago. And the third is the information revolution, which is rapidly evolving humanity’s relationship with the tools it invents, and this started a few decades ago.

Similarly, the methods and tools of innovation have evolved in a similar fashion…

Three waves of societal evolution

The processes and technologies that comprise the art and science of innovation have progressed in three oddly similar phases. In what I call the BC era, “before computers,” innovators were equivalent to hunter gatherers of ideas. The best that even the mighty IBM could do, in terms of innovation technology, was print posters admonishing workers to think harder. The village shaman would cast an occasional fishbone diagram and invoke the Pareto Principle to conjure up a little quality for the organization. Hung like totems around the office, such items become artifacts for the social ethnographer.

But in the AD era, "After Digital," the invention of computers changed everything, in much the same way that hand tools changed cavemen. We are building brain tools now, not hand tools. Brain amplifiers. What Steve Jobs called "bicycles for the mind." The first wave of innovation evolution came with the invention of early innovation tools – mind-mappers, idea catchers, eventually we saw BBS forums that allowed discussions to be temporally distributed. The second wave of evolution started with the deployment of innovation pipelines and stage gate technologies that allow the production of ideas to be “industrialized” and automated. This was the era of the “idea factory,” and the leading innovation consultant of the time even used that term as its brand. (I was a fellow at John Kao’s Idea Factory. John’s a thoughtful teacher and it was and still is a great place to perfect the skill of ideation).

At long last, a third wave of innovation is now finally beginning. Third wave innovation seeks not only to simplify and automate the production and processing of ideas, it aims to enable inventors to create fundamentally better ideas. And just as we see in society today, the tools change the user as well as the other way around, leading to what we’ll see some sunny day in the future: a critical mass singularity of new innovation tools and methodologies.

Three waves of innovation evolution

There’s an adage in management that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Soon, therefore, innovation management will have the same sort of tools that project managers and financial managers use today, tools that not only measure innovation, but actively assist in assessing not only what might wrong early enough to fix it cheaply, but also in refining ideas and designs to maximize customer delight, intimacy, and value.

These new tools will be innately social and they will be mobile. For example, consider the task of team optimization. Yesterday, the way to build a startup team was to hire people you knew and trusted, and who your hires knew and trusted. Unfortunately, trust isn’t absolutely transitive, and so the reliability of hires eroded pretty quickly down the ladder. The emerging model is to leverage social networks and “innovation reputation ratings” to more effectively build teams of compatible entrepreneurs.

And it’s going to be much more than that. Expect to see artifacts of the next wave like innovation apps for digital whiteboards, the use of artificial intelligence (like Siri) to assist humans in the process of refining ideas, the emergence of social workflow that leverage business and social activity frameworks to map and codify workflow optimizations on the fly, and comprehensive systems for measuring and tracking IP value dynamically for real-time innovation audits. We could call this “lean and agile innovation.” Or maybe “innovation unleashed.”

This is what we'll see in the Third Wave of Innovation as an art and a science.

So far, third wave innovation is pretty rare. Most innovation managers work in the second wave, as they’re stuck in the prevailing paradigm. This is because real innovation is actually quite difficult, and requires deep thinking, real life experience, and insight into how the work can be done differently.

A terrific example of a third wave innovation consultancy is Innovation Labs, which recently produced a book called The Innovation Master Plan. Now, talk about comprehensive! It provides strategies for every contingency, and aims to be The Art of War for innovation. And they’re still giving it away free – HERE. (Better hurry!)

In general, first wave innovation produces products and services that are hit or miss, often requiring three or more generations to iron out all the bugs. Second wave innovation usually produces better customer satisfaction sooner, leading to a more loyal user base. And third wave innovation is the icing on the cake, terrific for customers because the entire process is tuned to generate customer delight and enthusiastic fans from the get-go.

For example, a decade ago how many generations did Apple need to perfect a product? It was a minimum of three generations to get a concept that could take over an industry, like the iPod or iPhone: version 3 was the one that people couldn’t live without. But how many generations did the iPad take? One.

How many product generations does it take your company to perfect an offering?

Have you invented your industry’s equivalent of the iPhone yet?

And which wave of innovation is your company surfing?

The answers to these three questions will likely predict the likelihood that your organization will leverage the full impact of the Information Revolution, transform the experience of your customers, and assure your place in the next generation of your industry.