This is meant to be a thought-provoking post, so I've been mullng it over for a few weeks. First of all, you probably think I'm kidding around with this title or that I'm just trying to get your attention; I'm not. I really do believe that we, as a society, hate people who think outside the box—in reality, versus in theory. We don't love innovators; we love winners.
Now, bear with me, and try to think of some real innovators.
How about Copernicus and Galileo's theory of Heliocentrism (the idea that the earth and planets revolve around the sun at the center of the solar system, instead of the prevailing belief at the time that earth was God's creation and the center of the universe)? They were not very popular in their day, to say the least.
Who "discovered" electricity? Edison? Think again. Thomas Edison didn't even invent the light bulb. He invented one of the first commercially practical bulbs by making one that lasted longer than its competitors. Edison was a great self-promoter.
Gandhi's theory of non-cooperation and peaceful resistance was seen as weak when he first proposed it. It took many attempts and failures to make his tactic for independence from British rule popular with the masses.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not seen as a figure of healing and racial harmony when he first came to prominence in the Civil Rights movement. He was feared and misunderstood, and considered to be a Communist agitator by the security services.
How about music? Rock'n'Roll didn't become a phenomenon until Elvis Presley exploded on the scene, but Rock had been kicking around at least since Muddy Waters connected his guitar to an electric amplifier.
Then there's computing: we are currently fascinated with technology, but what about the real pioneers? Ever heard of Claude Shannon?
At the very center of my point is the following question: why are we infatuated with Apple? Why does it seem like every article I read breathlessly describes Apple as the paragon of innovation?
Steve Jobs was a marketer and Steve Wozniak was an inventor. Are they truly innovators? To a great extent, yes. But not as much as you might think. The genius of Apple was to take the best parts of other people's ideas and combine them into great products (see Xerox PARC). Progress is always about standing on the shoulders of giants, and Apple is no exception. In fact, I take no exception to Apple's success and branding expertise.
I do take exception, however, when I hear Apple being used as a case study at every single conference and seminar I attend, whether it's a tech event or a communications event or a nonprofit event. The cult of Apple is misleading and blinding us to the real discussion surrounding innovation.
Apple is masterful at making the public WANT its products and this has to do with equal parts of design, psychology and marketing. But, how is your iPhone or iPad really innovative? Is it any more innovative than the Blackberry when it first appeared on the scene?
Innovation should be about doing something better, faster and cheaper than before. It should be about improvement and changing the game—whether it's light bulbs or phones or social justice. A lot of the things we think of as innovations today are gadgets. They entertain us, but they don't transform our lives and, as hard as it seems, we can survive without them.
The Internet is an innovation: a day without the Internet is difficult to imagine for me. Personally, a day without a smart phone is merely inconvenient. Using a basic cell phone to call the U.S. from a field in the Democratic Republic of Congo with impeccable reception? That's innovation that has changed lives.
In the final analysis, we do not really appreciate innovators disrupting our lives, but we do like winners. We like the person, company or country that reaps the rewards of innovation and does better than its competitors and predecessors. Do you own an iPad? An iPhone? How about an iPod? Did you own an iMac? or a Macintosh Apple II? I remember the first Macs, because of the mouse and the graphic user interface. At the time, that seemed like an innovation: what was once the domain of computer programmers became accessible to creative artists and designers. The process became easier to conceptualize and the use of personal computers spread like a wildfire, allowing more people to do their work more effectively and efficiently..
These days, Apple isn't the most innovative company around, but they are the best at knowing what you want. They've made a fortune out of building on trends and harnessing peer pressure. Business magazines desperately want to believe that Apple and Facebook are transforming our lives, but the truth is more elusive. We can't innovate for innovation's sake. Innovation is and should be hard.
The innovative companies out there are the ones you haven't heard of yet. They're the ones telling us that our thinking is outdated and our technology is holding us back; that we need to change. The knowledge that we not performing to the best of our ability can be painful for the ego, but, if there is value, an innovation can help a society move forward by leaps and bounds. Just think of how banking and paying for goods have changed in the past twenty years. Or telephone service. Or mail services. Travel. Surgery. Food. Etc.
Would you want to be the person who stands up in the middle of a crowd and points out that something's wrong and there's a better way to do it? Are you the kind of person who stands up for the truth, no matter the consequences? Most of us are not that person. Most of us resent that person for disrupting our lives.
Winners are only declared at the end of the race, not the beginning, while innovators invent the sport itself.