When the government shuts down an iconic American new product it will make the newspaper. When that shut down is a microcosm of the country’s innovation market, it will hit the front page. Earlier this month, the FAA grounded the Boeing 787 due to a variety of technical failures. The largest of which was a battery malfunction that Elon Musk, Founder of Tesla, Space X and a seemingly real life Tony Stark, called “inherently unsafe.”
The new airplane was supposed to usher American aerospace into a new frontier, but instead revealed an incentive towards directional rather than intersectional innovation. “Directional innovation improves a product in fairly predictable steps, along a well defined dimension,” Frans Johansson wrote in The Medici Effect, and this is exactly what Boeing did. The great thing about this BusinessWeek article is that it doesn’t cast blame specifically on Boeing, but treats it as a microcosm of a larger trend.
I recently had a conversation with a colleague about the historical impact of two of the century’s iconic business people: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I argued that in 200 years no one will remember Steve Jobs, but we will be talking about Bill Gates for the next 500. My reasoning really has nothing to do with their technical accomplishments, in fact, I’m pretty sure you could convincingly argue for both. It has to do with their legacy.
At one time Cornelius Vanderbilt was one of the wealthiest and famous person on the planet. Today when people my age hear “Vanderbilt” they think of the worst football team in the Southeastern Athletic Conference. Someday, just like the railroad before, the iPhone and the Powerbook will be replaced- along with the legacy of Steve Jobs. Meanwhile, the work of the Gates Foundation will continue on, building communities and countries across the globe.
“Any innovation,” Gates wrote in this year’s annual letter, “whether it’s a new vaccine or an improved seed-can’t have an impact unless it reaches the people who will benefit from it. That’s why in this year’s letter I discuss how innovations in measurement are critical to finding new, effective ways to deliver these tools and services to the clinics, family farms, and classrooms that need them.” The paper is worth reading, not only for inspiration, but to see what happens when charity and philanthropy are treated with the same approach as a business.
The ad hoc is forbidden. Imagine an airplane employee bringing in an extension cord and a power strip to deal with the daily occurrence of travelers hunched in the corner around a single outlet. Impossible. There is a bias toward permanent and improved, not quick and effective.
Think about this next time you are solving a problem. What can you do today to solve the problem, that cost little and risks less?