Posted by Tom Grant on June 16, 2010
Since I've been talking a lot about innovation, both in print and in person, I've been running through countless metaphors to make this point or that about the innovation process. My latest inspiration uses some well-known fictional characters to encapsulate the difference between invention and adoption: Who is the better innovator, Captain Nemo (Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) or Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (Star Trek)?
Most people would probably choose Nemo. After all, his greatest invention, the Nautilus, antedated by decades the first real submarines. (The US Navy honored Verne's vision by naming the first nuclear submarine the U.S.S. Nautilus.) Previous military experiments with submersibles, such as the Hunley, seem primitive and almost comic compared to the sleek, powerful Nautilus, which was, at least in fiction, sinking enemy warships decades before U-boats became the terrors of the high seas. As an invention, the Nautilus was so new that naval experts assumed it was a sea monster, not something as novel as an underwater ironclad. Now that's inventiveness for you.
And the Nautilus wasn't Nemo's only creation. Diving suits, air rifles, compact electrical generators – the man had a knack for invention. Unfortunately, he didn't have any interest in reproducing these technologies. Mad geniuses generally don't have the patience to file for patents, build factories, and carry out job searches for good engineers. When the Nautilus sank, so did its creator, and with him, the knowledge needed to reconstruct his inventions.
Scotty is an expert at the opposite end of the innovation process from Nemo. Rather than inventing new technologies, he has an uncanny skill at making them work. Even when no one has ever encountered a particular problem with the transporters, the warp drive, or any other component of the Enterprise, Scotty figures out a way to get the ship back into working order. He has a special talent with jury-rigging custom interfaces, such as plugging a Romulan cloaking device into the Enterprise – while being fired on by Romulan battlecruisers, no less.
Which fictional character was the better innovator? Lots of people have good ideas, but few have the ability to turn them into widely-adopted technology. You might argue that, without a Nemo, Scotty wouldn't have anything to repair. On the other hand, without a Scotty, Nemo's inventions would never go beyond his laboratory, or a single prototype. (Verne had a very weak explanation for how, on his own, he was able to manufacture and assemble the Nautilus.)
Rather than giving the wimpy answer ("They're both great innovators!"), I'll cast my vote for Scotty. Not only do the Scottys of the world ensure the adoption of new technology, but their experiences are the inspiration for many new ideas. Until someone articulates a need, great ideas such as rocket travel to the moon – the subject of another Verne novel – remain on the drafting board, or the library shelf, for a long, long time. That's one reason why customers must be partners in innovation: Without understanding why and how someone might use a new technology (for example, cut down the amount of jury rigging), an invention might as well sink beneath the waves.