Slow Innovation

Good ideas take a long time to perfect.

Photograph by Muriel Miralles de Sawicki

As word of the invention of the internal combustion engine first spread in 1870, owners and workers in the booming buggy-whip industry probably took scant notice. Maybe some prescient buggy-whip entrepreneurs saw the early writing on the wall — that this new invention would one day put them out of business. But most didn’t. Why would they? Mass production of the automobile — the coup de grace of the horse-drawn-carriage accessory industry — didn’t happen for another 40 years, when Henry Ford mass-produced the Model T on his newly invented assembly lines in 1913.

What’s the lesson learned? Innovation takes a long time — longer than most businesses realize or even want to admit. Richard Luecke, the author of several books from the Harvard Business Essentials series, defines innovation as “the embodiment, combination or synthesis of knowledge in original, relevant, valued new products, processes or services.” Within this “synthesis of knowledge” is a twisting vortex of new ideas that have to be extracted, implemented, and exploited in order to become real innovations. In other words, identifying new ideas is only the first step in a long process. Bringing them to market and then dominating that market is an entirely different matter.

Take the music industry. Edison’s cylinder phonograph was invented in 1877, and the first wax cylinders were mass-marketed in the 1880s. This technology lasted until the 1910s, at which time disc records became the medium of choice for at-home music listeners. After that, the cylinder business petered out, but it took 30 years for flat discs to mature and develop into the dominant player in the industry.

More recent innovations in the recording industry are better known. Vinyl lasted for 80 years before it was challenged (meekly, some say) by cassette tapes and 8-track cartridges in the '70s and '80s. Real change, however, came in the 1990s with compact disc (CD) technology. Now digital music recordings are challenging the CD’s dominance, but MP3 technology didn’t simply appear in the late '90s. According to many accounts, that technology began life in the 1970s. Here again is another 30-plus-year innovation cycle.

Certainly, time scales are different for different industries, and there may be evidence of innovation happening in faster time cycles because of rapidly improved technologies. But innovation isn’t only about new technology. In fact, it’s mainly about culture. Humans are by nature habitual animals, and it takes a lot to move us off of our habits. Technology may be advancing quickly, but that doesn’t mean humans have the interest or the aptitude to adopt it right away.

For example, Swiss inventor George de Mestral invented Velcro in 1941 after noticing the burrs of a burdock had small hooks that caught on his clothing during a hike. Yet it took him nearly 10 years to develop the invention, several more to get the patent (1955), and even longer to sell the product to some pioneering early adopters, including NASA and one or two sporting-equipment companies. So while Velcro was a brief moment of invention, the process of establishing it as part of the culture took much longer.

For businesses, slow is often a pejorative term, but slow innovation isn’t always a bad thing. Slow change can give entrenched industries a chance to gather their thoughts and respond effectively. Is it possible that a 19th-century buggy-whip company, faced with declining sales, started fashioning steering wheel covers, gearshift handle caps, and leather seating in cars? If not, they should have, thereby turning extinction into evolution. Businesses looking to innovate must always be paying attention to disruptions (and perhaps even doing a little disrupting of their own).

On that note, the wheel and tire industry may need to take action soon — which could take a lot of people by surprise, seeing as how the first practical inflatable tire was invented in 1887 and the basic premise of that invention is still used today. Nevertheless, Michelin recently unveiled the Tweel as an alternative to the pneumatic tire. Rather than air, the Tweel has a series of “spokes” between the hub and outer ring that are both rigid and flexible enough to support the weight of the car and which make it impossible to get a flat.

The Tweel does face some technological limitations — a common challenge that often adds to the sluggish pace of innovation — but given time and technology breakthroughs, the Tweel could see some market success and eventually replace the pneumatic tire. This is disruptive innovation in its infancy. What are Bridgestone and Goodyear doing so that they won’t be left holding the buggy whip? It’s unclear, but they likely have time to produce their own innovations while the Tweel grows up.

David Hoffer is an associate creative director at frog’s San Francisco studio.