In the wake of the pandemic, the world is enduring an extended period of disruption and upheaval. Individuals and businesses alike are feeling uncertain and behaving more conservatively. This might be an age of anxiety, but innovation potential continues to give hope. And understanding how to harness this may be the key to finding future success.
Lessons from the great inventor
Perhaps no single figure has become as closely associated with our concept of innovation as the famous American inventor, Thomas A. Edison. He held over a thousand patents during his career and developed the light bulb, phonograph, and motion-picture cameras.
But if you research extensively about Edison’s career and methods, you’ll find a greater depth and complexity to the myth of the solitary innovator. His famous quote about inspiration being 1% of genius hints at this. Perspiration is central to progress. But a bit of serendipity may also be critical.
The story of the film camera demonstrates this. Edison’s hard work on the light bulb gave him one piece of the puzzle. But the other pieces came from elsewhere. George Eastman’s company began to produce celluloid film in 1889, and Eadward Muybridge, an acquaintance of Edison’s, developed the motion-picture projector in 1879.
Luck plays a part
Edison was a master marketer who came to understand that the needs of his audience were far more critical than technical know-how and creativity. He didn’t work alone but ran a business with many specialists contributing to inventions in his laboratory. And he made a point of not developing something unless its profitability was established.
This is a lesson that many companies strive to apply, yet fail to do so. Businesses seek to encourage innovation within, but they ignore the fact that connections are required. Sometimes, you have to be in the right position at the right time.
For instance, a crisis intervention team (CIT) platform could only be developed by programmers working closely with the seemingly unrelated fields of law enforcement and mental health. The need has existed for some time, but technology had not caught up until more recently, and the right people had to make those connections.
Becoming a successful adapter
This is the lesson of countless innovations throughout history, and a central theme of James Burke’s chronicle of invention, Connections. And in the modern networked world, variables have become so intertwined, and our actions so connected, that outcomes are never entirely foreseeable.
When something grows so big that it proves disruptive, its potential doesn’t always seem apparent at the outset. Neither do the first inventors themselves always manage to crest the wave of success. Google wasn’t the first search engine. Blogger, Friendster, and Myspace predated Facebook. Amazon began as an online bookstore, and even in that domain, it wasn’t the first player, as Barnes & Noble had established an e-commerce presence.
You don’t have to be the innovator to take advantage of emerging technologies and disruptions. Attempting to become a modern-day Edison in the face of endless complexity is probably futile. But you can apply his business and marketing savvy to succeed in a climate filled with disruption.
Harnessing new technologies
The pandemic has undoubtedly had a harsh, negative impact on human lives across the world. And while there are few bright spots amid this situation, one has seen new advances in technology.
Remote work is much-cited as one way in which technology has helped us. But there are other, less visible developments going on. For instance, with people now conducting much of their shopping activity online, the need for delivery with minimal or no human contact is being fulfilled by robots and drones.
As Covid-19 exposed the frailty of global supply chains, companies have moved towards increased data sharing and security to more accurately forecast demand and schedule production. 3D printers also offer businesses the ability to manufacture simple parts on-site if a remote production partner gets shut down due to emergency measures.
In the uncertain present and the eventual new normal, businesses don’t need to be directly behind the latest developments in technology. Instead, seek to analyze the underlying trends and how they ultimately relate to people’s needs.
At the same time, take care not to alienate people by how you treat your employees. If you give tasks to AI, for instance, make sure that move creates new jobs for humans. Then, as Edison did over a century ago, you can connect your products and services with your audience in ways that matter.