The Art of Innovation, Invention, and Creativity

I spent an enjoyable evening today at dinner with friends talking about innovation: specifically, what differentiates the characteristic of innovative from creative from inventive.

Answer the following questions:

       A. e e cummings’ poetry is:

  1. creative
  2. innovative
  3. inventive

        B. Name a painter who was creative but not innovative.

        C. Can an artist be innovative but not creative?

        D. Name an invention that was neither creative nor innovative.

These were some of the questions that we discussed, and I’d be curious to hear answers from those reading this and their reasons for giving them.

You’ll notice that our discussion tended away from technology and more towards artistic fields. This was intended as a way to shed new light on how we innately think of these concepts, what representations of these concepts have been built up in our lives. Thinking about which artists you consider creative, or innovative, or inventive, and why you make that distinction can illuminate our application of these terms to business, science and technology–fields where these terms get applied so often that their differentiation has become obscured.

With respect to the arts, the term creative seemed to require that the observer have a visceral response to the artwork, some level of appreciation or aesthetic response. The mere act of creating something does not demand that the act be denoted “creative” in this context. A work could be different and inventive while not inducing in the viewer/reader a response that creates the reaction “creative”. We can understand this in technology through Edison’s quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” This quote from our greatest inventor can also apply to the act of invention. Developing something new can result simply from hard work and does not necessarily require any creativity at all.

Creativity also requires the context of history—a piece of art is judged creative when considering what has been done previously by that artist and by other artists. Context helps define what is creative and what is derivative.

Innovation, however, requires the contexts of both the past and the future. Innovation must be creative (the past, see above), but must also cause a change in the creations of others (the future). If someone creates a piece of art that incorporates a new technique, the piece would only be innovative if it inspired other artists to change how they create art, perhaps by creating a movement based around a new technique or approach. Innovation thus demands a social context of some sort that creativity does not.

So when is something an invention? Obviously it must be new, but if I throw paint at a piece of paper , then I’ve created something new while not something inventive. It must be new in the sense that it has novelty and utility. Unlike creativity, inventiveness seems to require the creation of a tool of some sort that others can use. Invention can somehow be disassociated from creativity in the sense that one can slog one’s way to an invention (or utility creation) without the flash of inspiration and imagination that is associated with creativity. One can create an invention simply by trying something over and over again until something works. This would not be a creative process. Nor would it be an innovation.

Or is this all wrong? I have a suspicion—no, I’m sure—that there are inconsistencies in these arguments and some of the statements are outright wrong. Which ones, I’m not sure. But it certainly is worth thinking about, and it definitely makes for a great dinner discussion.

Google’s World Domination Intact?

That Google was the only company that didn’t comply with the government’s request for search records last year wasn’t surprising, nor was the relief expressed by Google today over the judge’s ruling that attempted to alleviate the public’s concern about the security of online data.

Many commentators have been discussing the story as if the main issue is the privacy rights of  searching, but for Google it’s much more than that. What’s become clear over time is that Google’s long-term business strategy is to get people to search, store and create all of their knowledge online through Google services. Google wants us, ultimately, to store all of our data (documents, pictures, writings, knowledge) and all of our knowledge sources online in a way that they can be easily shared/searched/modified/mashed. Goodbye hard-drive, goodbye local apps: Google wants to provide everything for you. This frees you to access your data whenever you want with whatever machine you want: home PC, work PC, phone, pda-embedded sunglasses, implanted neurochip.

Why does Google have this strategy? Because that’s the logical business plan that one would create on the assumption that data storage will be essentially free, wireless broadband access will be available to everyone at all times, and people will have multiple devices with which they can access, store and create their information. Google’s original innovation–their search engine–is the linchpin of this personal total-knowledge system.

What could kill this business plan and what will be Google’s biggest hurdle to overcome? Distrust by consumers in giving their data/knowledge to Google. Forget people becoming leery of online searches. Google’s dreams of being the consumer’s omnipresent global knowledge partner would die in a flash if people thought their private data could be compromised. Hence their fight to not turn over search records.

A lawyer for the ACLU was perhaps reading too much altruism in Google’s actions when quoted in the New York Times as saying, "The mere fact that Google has stood up to the government is a positive thing." Google was just protecting their long-term business plan.

Kevin Kelly on Trends in Science

Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, The WELL, and author of the blog Cool Tools gave a talk called "The Next 100 Years of Science: Long-term Trends in the Scientific Method" at the Long Now Foundation Lecture Series. I was not really familiar with Kelly’s writings, but I attended the talk because of my interest in the topic and because I was familiar with Kelly’s reputation as a respected commentator. Needless to say, his Cool Tools blog did not prepare me for what to expect from his talk, nor does the blog do his talents justice.

Kelly is a self-proclaimed scientist groupie, being a college drop-out and having never participated in technology as a scientist or engineer. He contributes as a cultural commentator, which is how he approached his lecture. Kelly said that he is more interested in the process of science rather than science itself and noted that most scientists are “clueless” about the topic. His interest in talking about the future of science is in how the process will evolve, rather than what actual breakthroughs will be made. So, there was no speculation on the forthcoming prevalence of jetpacks, flying cars or replicants (those would be technological advances rather than scientific advances, anyway).

Despite the forward-looking title, Kelly spent much of his talk detailing key developments in the past history of science. To predict future developments in the scientific method, he would look for patterns in the scientific process over the past 2000 years.

Kelly’s abbreviated history of the scientific process timeline went like this:

2000 BC: first bibliography
250 BC: First catalog
200 BC: first library with an index
1000 AD: first collaborative encyclopedia
1590: first controlled experiment
1600: Introduction of laboratories
1609: Introduction of scopes
1650: Society of Experts created
1665: The concept of necessary repeatability introduced
1665: First scholarly journal published
1675: Peer review introduced
1687: The concept of hypothesis/prediction introduced
1920: Falsifiability introduced
1926: Randomized design created
1937: Controlled placebo approach developed
1946: First computer simulation
1950: Double-blind refinement
1962: Kuhn’s Study of the Scientific Method

All of these are changes to the process of how we know something. The introduction of Falsifiability, for example, affected what we would consider a scientific theory: if a theory could not be proven wrong, then it wasn’t a theory at all (and could more likely be categorized as a belief).

After detailing his view of how the scientific method has evolved up until now, Kelly then went on to present five predictions of how science and the scientific method would change over the next century:

  1. Science will change in the next 50 years as much as it changed in the last 400. No doubt. Everything is accelerating, although we are highly unlikely to achieve a singularity as Ray Kurzweil suggests.
  2. It will be a Bio century. Kelly provided data that demonstrates how biology is already the biggest scientific field today and suggested that the amount that we have to learn over the next several decades will overshadow developments in every other field.
  3. Computers will lead the Third Way of Science. Kelly suggested that the general methods for making scientific progress have so far been Measurement and Hypothesis. He suggests that Computer Simulations will become just as important a tool in the scientist’s arsenal for advancing our knowledge and understanding. Don’t know how something works? Run simulations of every possible parameter set and permutation until you accurately model the behavior of the process that you are observing. I see this already in my field, and certainly simulations play a significant role in our understanding of many different systems today, from economics to physiology.
  4. Science will create new ways of knowing. Kelly (I think) is talking about tools here. He mentioned wikis, distributed computing, journals of negative results, and triple-blind experiments as examples of recent changes to the process of developing and sharing information. Distributed computing is the distribution of a parallel-processed problem to be solved across many connected computers, as is already being done by SETI and for conducting cancer research. Triple-blind experiments refer to the gathering of massive amounts of data and storing it for future experiments that haven’t been specified yet, with such a broad swath obtained that the control data can also be extracted from the database.
  5. Science will create a new level of meaning. Here Kelly extrapolated the concept of distributed computing by speculating on the power of all the computers on the internet as a single computing machine. He created analogies between this massive system and the structure of the brain. I have to admit, my notes are sketchy on this section, but they include discussion of both science and religion as consisting of infinite games and recursive loops, and proclamations that Science Is Holy and that the long-term future of science is a divine trip. I guess you’ll have to wait for his book for an explanation of these concepts.

The Q&A section after his talk was perhaps the most interesting part of the seminar. Kelly has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, and his thoughts are both entertaining and intellectually interesting even if you think that he has completely missed the boat and take issue with his non-scholarly approach.

Keven Kelly seems like he would be an interesting guy to meet at a party for a memorable night of discussion.

Entrepreneurship for Dummies

Marc Hedlund at O’Reilly Radar has a great post with advice for entrepreneurs. There is a lot of advice, all on the money. I really have nothing to add to his list. Well, that’s not true. Here are some additions of my own:

Work with people that you like, respect and trust–It’s going to be tough going, everyone is going to be challenged, and pressure wil run high. Everyone has to wear multiple hats and you have to be able to trust your colleagues to pick up the slack that others can’t. The ups and downs are infinitely easier to handle if you can, at the end of a killer day/week/month, enjoy the journey with your colleagues regardless of the final outcome.

Do one thing and do it well–Don’t create a business plan that is going to launch several different products simultaneously, go after several different markets, or create a product that meets several different consumer needs. Focus on one thing like a laser and execute. If you are successful at that one thing, there will be time to expand to other opportunities.

Be nimble in your pitch–Some investors really want to dig down into the details of the technology, others trust your expertise and want to dive into the financials. Read your audience and adjust your presentation accordingly. Don’t act like you’re reading a script.

Don’t back down–VCs will demean your plan, technology, forecast, experience. They are testing you to see how you react, whether you properly defend yourself, and whether you have the spine to stick with your vision. If you are worth their money, you should be able to respond to whatever they throw at you. Stand by your plan, be confident and be able to back everything that you say. You should be the expert at what you are pitching–show it.

Here are a few items from Marc’s extensive list:

Prudence becomes procrastination — it’s great to research your market and talk to potential buyers about your ideas. It’s terrible to let an excess of this become a impediment to getting started. Too much prudence edges away from research and into procrastination.

Build the simplest thing possible — engineers have the hardest time with this, with not overdesigning for the need they’re addressing. Make the simplest possible product that makes a significant dent in that need, and you’ll do far better than you would addressing two or three needs at once. Simplicity leads to clarity in everything you do.

For investors, the product is nothing — the classic engineer’s VC pitch has ten slides about the product and two about the academic achievements of the founders. That’s a terrible pitch. One slide should be about the product, while the rest cover the market, competitors, financials, funding history, and the relevant experience of the team. The product matters far less to most investors than the reactions of customers, the properties of the market, and the credibility of the team. Obsess about the product on your own time; present your business in all of its parts.


I’m trying out this easy-to-create-website service called Squidoo (created by Seth Godin, business writer guru). They call their modular webpages “lenses,” and lenses are supposed to be on a specific topic of expertise of the lens creator. Here’s how they describe themselves:

We have built an online platform that makes it easy for anyone to build lenses on topics they are passionate about. These lenses help you find a unique, human perspective on things that interest you… fast. Not only can Lensmasters spread their ideas, get recognized for their expertise, and send more traffic to their Web sites and blogs—they could also earn royalties.

The concept is that you can easily create a page on a specific topic that contains several modules consisting of links, text, photos and several other preformatted entries. My lens is on hearing aids, but my lens is pretty green since I just created it a few days ago. To see more established and interesting lenses, check out these on Arrested Development, Trader Joe’s, and Frequent Fliers.

I’m curious to see how much traffic I get on this and whether it shows up on Google when people search on hearing aids. It’s so easy to create a page, not much is lost if it doesn’t turn out to be useful.

Make It Happen

I just read a post at Innovate on Purpose that points out the fact that everyone talks about the act of creating innovation but not the act of reducing the invention to practice:

Far too often we get caught up in the "Creative" piece of the process – generating ideas, but then the logistics or executional portion fails to create excitement or process flow around the idea.

In other words, we talk a lot about how to generate ideas but not about the longer and more difficult process of implementing those ideas.

This reminds me of something that I learned from Rodney Perkins, one of the great innovators in Silicon Valley. I’ll probably post more in the future on other wisdom that I learned while working with him, but for now I’ll just talk about one piece of advice of his that relates to this topic. This is advice that he’s not only told me but that he’s lectured on at Stanford and other entrepreneur forums.

One of Rodney’s primary points of advice on how to create a successful startup—actually on innovation in general—is that success doesn’t come from new ideas, it comes from implementing those ideas. Rodney likes to point out that everyone has seen a new product or feature and exclaimed, “Hey, I thought of that!” In fact, not only you did but probably hundreds of others did as well. The difference between you, the others with the same idea, and the person that created the product is that the latter made it happen. He didn’t just have an idea and stop there; he had the idea and pursued it to productization.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. What differentiates successes from might-have-beens is whether they make it happen, whether they took the idea and made something from it. If you spend the time, you can probably come up with several great ideas a day, but those ideas are meaningless unless you take action to bring those ideas to fruition. Everyone has ideas saying, “Woudn’t it be great if…” or “Why doesn’t someone do…” Entrepreneurs are often successful not because they were unique in having the great idea but because they were unique in taking action on the great idea.

Make It Happen is Rodney Perkins’ motto—he gives a plaque saying this to every employee of his startups. I never realized the power of that statement until I took it to heart and started making it happen myself. I’ve also become sensitive to situations where people complain about things or have great ideas for improvements but they don’t take any initiative to make it happen when they have the power to do so—they just make their statement, sit back and do nothing.

Make it happen.