When Steve Jobs and Apple launched the Macintosh with great fanfare in 1984, it was to be only one step in a long journey that began with Douglas Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos and the development of the Alto at Xerox PARC more than a decade before. The Macintosh was, in many ways, the culmination of everything that came before.
Yet it was far from the end of the road. In fact, it wouldn’t be until the late 90s, after the rise of the Internet, that computers began to have a measurable effect on economic productivity. Until then, personal computers were mainly an expensive device to automate secretarial work and for kids to play video games.
The truth is that innovation is never a single event, but a process of discovery, engineering and transformation. Yet what few realize is that it is the last part, transformation, that is often the hardest and the longest. In fact, it usually takes about 30 years to go from an initial discovery to a major impact on the world. Here’s what you can do to move things along.
1. Identify A Keystone Change
About a decade before the Macintosh, Xerox invented the Alto, which had many of the features that the Macintosh later became famous for, such as a graphical user interface, a mouse and a bitmapped screen. Yet while the Macintosh became legendary, the Alto never really got off the ground and is now remembered, if at all, as little more than a footnote.
The difference in outcomes had much less to do with technology than it had to do with vision. While Xerox had grand plans to create the “office of the future,” Steve Jobs and Apple merely wanted to create a cool gadget for middle class kids and enthusiasts. Sure, they were only using it to write term papers and play video games, but they were still buying.
In my upcoming book, Cascades, I call this a “keystone change,” based on something my friend Talia Milgrom-Elcott told me about ecosystems. Apparently, every ecosystem has one or two keystone species that it needs to thrive. Innovation works the same way, you first need to identify a keystone change before a transformation can begin.
One common mistake is to immediately seek out the largest addressable market for a new product or service. That’s a good…