We tend to believe innovation comes from exceptional individuals. Without denouncing the invaluable contribution of these individuals, innovation quintessentially arises between us. This insight arose from studying product development teams in the wild, and requires to shift the focus from an individual to interacting individuals. Or in plain language: to teams and their environment.
In our modern Western society we esteem individuals, above all when it comes to disruptive creativity. Great movies are made by one director. Scientific breakthroughs have one discoverer. Brilliant works of art are attributed to one artist. And the success of Apple is the vision of one man. It is all about extremely talented individuals. But things turn out to be different if one studies people in their natural habitat. I was capable to witness smaller and larger innovations inside a large product development team, and to trace what happened before someone mentioned his innovative insight. And to see if the innovation made it all the way to the market (not too often…). And the briefest summary of my insight is: innovation arises in between persons and the world they participate in.
It is a finding that is quite in line with writings of modern philosophers as Bruno Latour, or older ideas of John Dewey. But rather than to set up a complex philosophical discussion here, let me take an example that is enlightening, a well known example about discovery. In 1964 two young radio astronomer, Penzias and Wilson, were working on a new type of antenna at Bell Labs. They found a source of noise in the atmosphere that they could not explain, but was terribly annoying for progressing their initial plans. After removing all potential sources of noise, including pigeon droppings on the antenna, the noise was finally identified as cosmic background radiation, which served as important validation of the Big Bang theory. They earned the Nobel Prize for physics in 1978. That is the story that is often told, including the funny remark about pigeon droppings. But that is only half the story. Let’s start with a ‘detail’: both Penzias and Wilson never made the relation between the annoying background noise and the Big Bang theory. They had no clue. They just came to the conclusion that there must be a cosmic radiation in the universe because there are no other explanations. It was Robert Dicke, working at the University of Princeton -few miles away from Bell Labs – who understood what the implication was of the annoying cosmic radiation. He read work of a theorist, Gamow, who predicted something as background radiation. Apparently, Penzias and Wilson called Dicke, to see if he had an explanation. After receiving the telephone call, Dicke famously quipped: “Boys, we’ve been scooped”. Between Penzias and Wilson and Dicke in time the incredible insight arose that they were listening to the origins of our universe.. As some writers claim (Dennis Overbye, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos), Penzias and Wilson even in hindsight did not understand what they discovered. Not until somebody explained it in the New York times.
A simple question: who should deserve the Nobel Prize? The young astronomers who relentlessly attempted to find the source of an annoying noise, even when probably their managers were furious because lack of progress? Dicke, who made a relation between the noise and the forgotten theories of Gamow he was musing on for some time? Gamow, because he predicted the radiation, even though he did not know how you can measure that? Or Bell Labs, because it is Bell Labs that enabled the invention of radio telescopes in the first place? History shows it was Penzias and Wilson who made their way to fame. Considering that the story is often told, many of us feel a little dissatisfied with the outcome.
But that is not my point. Another simple question is: could anyone of these individuals ever have jumped to the conclusion that he found proof for the origins of the universe as we know it? Never. My point is: the discovery is quite literally between the individuals. Leave out one of them and there was no discovery. Leave out the radio telescope and nobody would ever have heard the strange noise. Of course, for discovery and innovation we need extremely talented individuals. But those individuals cannot discover, invent, create anything if they are not part of a larger system of individuals and objects around them. it is our Western worldview that loves to put the limelight on talented individuals. It is about time that we start acknowledging the decisive context they are in.