Every entrepreneur dreams of having that single moment of epiphany where everything falls into place. Many search for their entire careers for that one big idea that will make the difference between incredible success and frustrating mediocrity. Few ever find it and many that do end up crashing and burning along the way.
The truth is that innovation is never a single event and the “eureka moment” is largely a myth. Innovation always involves combinations, so it’s less a matter of coming up with a big idea than it is putting the right ideas together in order to solve a meaningful problem. That’s a process, not a moment.
That’s why instead of starting with an idea, it’s best to start by finding a good problem. Innovation is far more complex than most people give it credit for. It takes more than an idea to change the world. In fact, it often takes decades after an initial breakthrough for its impact to become clear. Innovation is an integrated process of exploration, iteration and execution.
In researching my book, Mapping Innovation, one thing that surprised me was how often those who create pathbreaking innovations never intended to come up with anything at all. Rather, it was in the course of exploration that they hit upon some connection that turned out to be key to solving an important problem.
Jim Allison never dreamed of curing cancer. He was, in fact, not a medical doctor at all but an immunology researcher. Nevertheless, his decades of exploration led him to the unlikely idea that altering how our immune system is regulated could make it a powerful weapon against the disease and today, cancer immunotherapy is considered to be a miracle cure.
As W. Brian Arthur explains in The Nature of Technology, every new technology starts out with the discovery of some phenomenon, even though the utility of that phenomenon usually isn’t clear at first. Einstein, for example, never dreamed that there would be practical use of his work during his lifetime. The truth is that the next big thing always starts out looking like nothing at all.
Take a look at any organization that is able to innovate consistently and it has a systematic and disciplined process for exploring new problems. IBM’s Research division has helped the company continually reinvent itself over decades, long after most of its competitors are long gone. Google’s 20% time acts as a human-powered search engine for new problems.
But you don’t need to be a billion dollar firm to explore. In fact, there are a variety of ways — from government programs to industry consortiums to local universities — that allow even small companies to access world class research.
Elance was launched in 1999 in response to what the founders saw as an important new phenomenon they found in a Harvard Business Review article about the dawn of the E-Lance economy. Seeing an opportunity to become the “Monster.com” for contract work, they built a website to facilitate matches between contractors and companies that wanted to hire them.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and in 2001, a new CEO, Fabio Rosati took over and steered the company toward another opportunity entirely — vendor management software. Rather than matching firms with contractors, Elance now focused on making those engagements successful. The strategy was moderately successful and the company sold the business in 2006.
Yet Rosati saw that an even greater opportunity could be unlocked by applying what they learned from designing vendor management software and applying it to the first business. The new Elance website would not only connect companies with freelancers, but also track and improve how those engagements performed.
The idea took off, Elance grew at an astounding pace and Rosati’s team continued to experiment and iterate, creating innovations such as private talent clouds, skills accreditation and training programs. Later, it would merge with its rival, oDesk, to create Upwork which is today a massive enterprise, encompassing 12 million freelancers, 5 million clients and $1 billion in annual freelancer billings.
The truth is that every idea starts out wrong. Sometimes it’s off by a little and sometimes it’s off by a lot, but it’s always wrong in some way. That’s why you need to constantly iterate and experiment to get it right.
Amazon wasn’t the first Internet bookstore, just like Apple’s iPod wasn’t the first digital music player, but both came to be synonymous with their categories. Sometimes having a pathbreaking idea isn’t enough. You have to be able to make it a reality.
Consider the case of Ignaz Semmelweis, a doctor at the obstetric ward of Vienna General Hospital in the 1850’s. Appalled by the number of deaths in the ward, he instituted a strict regime of hand washing and virtually eliminated the childbed fever that was endemic at the time. Alas, things did not go well from there.
Instead of being lauded for his accomplishment, he was castigated and considered a quack. Part of the problem was that Semmelweis’s ideas about hand washing conflicted with the prevailing miasma theory of the day. It was widely thought at the time that “bad airs,” not bacteria, caused disease. So hand washing simply didn’t make any sense to the medical profession at the time.
Luckily, those that came later, like Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister and Robert Koch fared better. Unlike Semmelweis, they were not only great scientists, but also knew how to connect with the medical community at large and helped establish the germ theory of disease. Millions of lives were saved because of it.
Innovation Isn’t About Ideas, But Solving Problems
Most people think innovation is about ideas. It’s not. It’s about identifying and solving meaningful problems. That’s why simply coming up with a new idea won’t get you very far. As startup guru Steve Blank puts it, you need to “get out of the building,” find a problem that people want solved and iterate towards a solution.
Let’s return to the story of Jim Allison I mentioned above. When he came up with his idea about cancer immunotherapy he went to all of the top pharmaceutical companies, but no one wanted to invest in it. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t understand his idea, but that they had seen it many times before and blew through billions of dollars on hundreds of trials.
Allison, already very prominent in his field, pounded the pavement for three years before he found a small biotech company that was willing to take a chance on him and run clinical trials. It was eventually sold to Bristol Myers Squibb for $2.4 billion, largely on the strength of Allison’s discovery.
Yet even now, the job remains unfinished. When Allison’s miracle drug was first launched, it only worked on about 30% of patients and just a few forms of cancer. Now these were terminal patients, so that was impressive, but he still understood that there was work to be done. Today, in his late sixties, he still goes to work everyday to improve the efficacy of the treatment and expand its use.
It’s never enough just to have a great idea. You have to see it through.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com