Why The Center Of Innovation Is For Suckers

Great, we're experiencing another paradigm shift. If you want to survive it, history says you should stay to the side.

When times are a-changing, Jeff Elder writes for Medium, you don't want to be at the center of the ch-ch-changes. Instead, you want to be advantageously adjacent.

How so? Elder, who's the social lead for the San Francisco Gate, references a class on innovation he took with Stanford professor William Cockayne:

It would be easy, he said, to assume that everyone should have stopped making buggies and started making cars. But actually, of all the automotive entrepreneurs of the turn of the century, only Ford and Mercedes survived. All the others went under. The market was not established, and neither were the roads. Parts could not easily be made and replaced. In fact, the smart money was to stick with making buggies – except that they had no longterm future.

So do you make buggies or cars? The answer, Elder's interpretation of history suggests, is to make neither.


This is a lesson in ecosystems and the interconnected incrementalism of paradigm shift—in other words, big changes have many parts, and placing yourself in an adjacent position, and out of harm's way, may be the best for survival.

Ask Harvey Firestone, the tire entrepreneur who Elder describes as "seeing the future as well as the present," for he hitched his trajectory to that of the world-shaping Henry Ford, but also stayed big with the buggies, which now needed tires tough enough to roll along with the changes in roads.

"They weren't addressing the central problem," he says, "but working around the edges."

The question for us, then, is to sense the early eddies of these epochal shifts—and orient our vessels along those currents. Which sounds like a lot of experimentation.

Hat tip: Medium

[Image: Flickr user Brandon Stovold]

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  • Anthony Reardon

    Right on Drake,

    That's a pretty ambitious subject to take on these days.

    So I wonder if, given the increasing rate and complexity of change happening now, if you can really draw solid connections to past patterns of innovation with the same assurance. The ideas of being patient, waiting for things to play out, and mitigating your risks might not be as useful today.

    In principle, some things aren't going to change- like masses of people jumping on the latest trends and theories for instance. Yet, with innovation itself becoming a predominant pattern, maybe some don't have the risk tolerance to not go all in, and maybe the windows of opportunity are so much smaller that you maybe should be decisive despite the uncertainty. With the movement to organizational cultures of innovation, if you are not showing action where convention suggests the center of innovation is, you might not have the social credibility to get the response you need to get your company going.

    One such instance that I've been dealing with lately is the popular transition to mobile/ responsive design. There is so much hype around it, but maybe it's like that horse and buggy. Alternatively, some people are starting to talk about web interface through computer integrated t.v. screens being the next big thing. If advertisers are driving mobile, maybe cable companies are going to put the kind of money into t.v. interfacing that might make that seem impossible to ignore in the near future- like cars.

    Jeff Elder seems to have kept his eyes on what was going to be useful as print media converted over to social. If you look at what could work equally well across mobile and giant flat screen, perhaps video is the reinvented wheel.

    Hard to say Firestone was really demonstrating foresight though. Not a stretch to imagine he was tied to rubber, and simply found it convenient that tires were applicable to both buggies and cars. For all those car companies that failed, something might be said of the couple that succeeded being at the center of innovation, and finding a way to prevail by being the best.

    What I can say is I do like the distributed systems or interoperable models. The idea of having more dynamic and adaptable systems suits an environment of innovation. At the same time, while I never liked Apple's exclusivity model, I agree it is worth looking at systems from different perspectives. For instance, I think the communal bottom-up development hierarchy has advantages relevant to innovation, they can also lack the decisiveness and speed to take bold action which may be equally relevant. I have to admit I like the agility of diversified business lines though, and where today's volatility comes to bear in a moment, your chances of suddenly becoming the next center of innovation are bigger if you start in the periphery.

    Best, Anthony