Henry Ford famously quipped that if he’d asked what people wanted, they’d have said, “faster horses.” There are countless numbers of ideas being funded every day that are aimed at essentially building faster horses. The result is that we have available an enormous embarrassment of riches in technology, information and economy – but how many of them are truly groundbreaking or innovative?
The real breakthroughs happen when we venture outside of convention and learn to look at problems a different way. The real ideas come when we make links where no one else has, a theory put forth by James Webb Young in his little known yet seminal 1939 book, “A Technique for Producing Ideas.”
Young believed that all ideas are simply a new combination of old elements – that by putting together these old elements in a new way, we create new ideas. In other words, ideas don’t just pop into our head. They are the result of a process that, as Webb himself said, “is just as definite as the production of Fords.”
It goes beyond the concept of disruptive innovation made popular by Clayton Christensen. True innovation springs from a combination of a deep understanding of customers’ needs and a willingness to approach a problem from a different angle – connecting the dots where no one else has.
Steve Jobs understood this process intuitively – “creativity is just connecting things” was one of his most often quoted lines – and it’s why he’s frequently held up as the master of innovation.
Jobs and his team at Apple understood the needs and wants of the marketplace. The seamless integration of hardware and OS, the ecosystem of application developers, the emphasis on design and the “attainable exclusivity” and brand cachet (iconic white ear buds?) all served to carve a space for this innovator in a place that was already too full of competitors.
Reed Hastings at Netflix also understood this need. From its streaming media to its all-you-can-watch model, Netflix pioneered online digital delivery of content, enabling users to watch movies anytime, anywhere and on any device they could connect to the Internet. Netflix blurred the lines between content distribution and content creation by offering high quality original programming.