One of the most important innovations of all time—the tin can—was first patented in 1810 by a British merchant named Peter Durand.
What’s so important about the tin can? It dramatically extended the reach of the British fleet, providing its sailors access to well-preserved food which allowed them to go on much longer voyages.
Which leads to an important question—what year was the can opener first patented?
The answer is in the next paragraph, but I’m going to stall a bit for dramatic effect. I’d really like for you to guess before you look at the answer. Come on, it’ll be fun.
Ezra Warner, an American, got the patent in—drum roll please—1858. For almost fifty years, if you wanted to open a can, you had to hit it with a chisel and hammer and spew most of the contents on the wall or floor. Or you could try a hack-saw and get lots of little shards of metal in your food.
If you read most books and articles on innovation, it makes the process seem so logical, structured and orderly. Obstacles come up and they are overcome. The correct decisions are magnified and the mistakes minimized. So the entire process of innovation is sanitized, homogenized and glorified.
This is dangerous because it gives a false sense of security to organizations that they can actually “manage” a process of innovation. And nothing could be further from the truth. Like an unruly pet or teenager, innovation is often survived—not managed.
Take Viagra. It redefined the entire field of male enhancement products when it was first discovered and has generated huge profits. But the drug was discovered almost by accident when a certain side effect started to rise in male patients recovering from heart attacks.
The other problem with innovation is that we all spend a lot of time studying things that worked. I maintain that we can often learn far more from things that didn’t. For every Starbucks or 747, we can learn a valuable lesson or two. But we can learn even more from the New Cokes and the Enrons and the other colossal failures of our time. Unfortunately most of us tend to be success junkies and we don’t have the patience to sort through the tales of woe from a bunch of losers.
But there is something even more annoying about innovation. As interesting as it is to read about the innovations of others, the most valuable stories about innovation are from within your own organization. That’s right. If you really want to understand why innovation is such a struggle, do some digging to find the last few attempts at innovation in your organization.
If your experience is like mine, you’ll discover that your organization has its own immune system that seeks out innovation and kills it. Corporate policies, management and profit targets are just three of the villains.
However, if you are grounded in the reality of what, and who, has been successful in your organization, you’ll dramatically increase the odds of success as you embark on your voyage of innovation. Hopefully this article will help to provide sustenance for you to maintain a can-do attitude when the journey gets bumpy, as it undoubtedly will.
About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected].