The word “innovation” is omnipresent. It is the buzzword of the day. You can hear it in television ads that seek to get us to buy their product based on the latest innovation. You also see it cropping up all over the web. The word has grown to be both popular and perhaps a little tired in recent history. Today I ponder why? Why has innovation acquired a dominant place in our society? When did the word innovation enter our vocabulary? Who started this movement, what does the word really mean? Where did the idea of innovation come from?
To answer these questions I searched for historians and other purveyors of innovation to help me understand how we ended up here.
In the Beginning
Before the 1700’s a person referred to as a “novator” was considered a suspicious person who was mis-trusted. Innovators were seen as heretics. The word “heretic” came from the Latin language which at the end of the 2nd Century defined the word as a person of false beliefs or who was sacrilegious. Towards the end of the 14th century heretics and later innovators took on the added secular meaning of those who did not conform to the established doctrine, attitude or principles of the day. This was not a popular notion at the time and the punishments for opposing the status quo were harsh.
In the Middle
Innovation began to take root in the 19th century as a word associated with science and industry. Of course, in the 1800’s and early 1900’s most of the promoters of the industrial revolution favored the word invention over innovation. Inventors were all the rage, providing our markets with an explosion of technical advancements. It was the realization that inventions offered little value if not brought to the masses through commercialization that propelled the word innovation to the forefront.
The Prophet of Innovation
The credit for our modern definition of innovation came to us in 1939 when an Austrian born economist defined invention as “an act of intellectual creativity undertaken without any thought given to its possible economic import, while innovation happens when firms figure out how to craft inventions into constructive changes in their business model.” Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), now known as the prophet of innovation, described capitalism as an evolutionary process. This capitalist process by its very nature cannot remain static. This process is discontinuous rather than smooth due to the very nature of economic successes and failures. Capitalism requires an economy to continually grow. However Schumpeter knew that growth did not occur equally in all sectors nor with each company within a sector. It is through the mini-revolutions of innovations that resulted in that economic growth. This is caused by what Schumpeter coined in 1942 as “creative destruction;” an essential fact of capitalism and innovation economics. Creative destruction is the incessant innovation mechanism (of products and processes) by which new production units replace outdated ones. This is progress and identified innovation by Schumpeter as the driving force of our economy.
A False Prophet
Of course, Schumpeter’s views on how the economy worked had competition. In fact, Schumpeter derived his theory of economic innovation and business cycles from an earlier economist; Karl Marx.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) had similar thoughts about capitalism. The key difference between Schumpeter and Marx was their assessment of the results of capitalism. I interpret Marx’s assessment of creative destruction as one in which there is an ever increasing number of people who are left behind due to the innovative success of a select few. Schumpeter on the other hand rejected this analysis stating that workers would not aspire to overthrowing the capitalists but instead would seek to extract more value from them and even one day become successful themselves. Marx failed to see how workers would unite and thus use their collective leverage to improve their economic condition.
In the Now
So, now we know that innovators are heretics who challenge the status quo by seeking to profit from the growth of our economy. This is only successfully done by leveraging our company resources in new, unique, and sustainable ways that keep us ahead of the competition and avoids the race to the bottom caused by accepting a commodity status.
In the Future
Now that Schumpeter has explained to us how success in the marketplace works it is up to us to take advantage of this knowledge. Many companies that have ignored this knowledge have fallen by the wayside. The fact that Schumpeter is not a household name suggests that we still have not fully embraced innovation. This is the status quo.
We do not need to let the story end here. We have the power to change the future and blaze a trail that leaves our competitors asking “why didn’t we think of that?” It all starts with a heretical attitude that challenges what we think we know and exchanges it for dreams of what may someday be. It is time to question the established doctrine, the outdated attitudes, and the assumptions of today. It is time to unite with other like-minded, innovative thinkers who seek out new methods, new ideas, and new dreams. It is time for the heretics of innovation to unite.