08/23/2010 05:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Innovation Is Relative

In John Kao's Book, Innovation Nation, he says: "breakthrough technologies regularly set the stage for staggering waves of innovation."

In other words, he is establishing that new technology isn't innovation. It simply creates the potential for innovation.

This is a critical distinction. What are the factors that make the potential created by new technology realized?

Alan Patrick, an author of the Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation, provides a summary of the research he did on the pace of innovation:

" . . . I looked at . . . the history of innovation over the last 100 years, from 1909 to 2009. If I had a hypothesis before starting it would be that there was an accelerating pace of innovation. The results -- so far -- tell me that is not the case, and it is probably cyclical. In fact, one could argue that innovation in 1909, 1949 and 1969 was greater than 2009."

Alan told me that my Grandfather (1989-1990) probably experienced more "Future Shock" than I have.

But while discussing this with my Grandfather's daughter (my "early-adopter" Mother who rightly says she has been much more likely to try new technology than her father ever did), I understood what John Kao meant when he said that "Probably, the most widely shared misconception about innovation is that it's all about science and high tech."

My grandfather really didn't have a reason to be motivated to use many of the new technologies which emerged in his lifetime. As a dentist, neither the telephone nor air flight were critical to expanding his revenue potential. He had plenty of business in his hometown to fill his calendar. No need for conference calls by telephone. All phone appointments were made through his assistant. In fact, he was never comfortable talking to me on the phone even when I was hundreds of miles away. He preferred letters.

So he didn't experience so much "Future Shock." In fact, when interviewed by the local NBC affiliate on his 100th birthday and asked what the most important advancement in his time was, his answer -- "The forward pass."

Why would he think allowing the forward pass in American football was the most important advancement in his time when automobiles, air flight, telephones, radio, television, film, etc. were introduced? Because football was his passion. The memories he cherished the most from his life were when he played football for his college team (picture scenes from the movie, Leatherheads) and coaching football as a high school teacher before he went on to study to become a dentist.

This implies that a factor that transforms a new technology into an innovation is the reason to use it. In other words, innovation is relative to the reason as much as the technology.

This makes sense when you consider that people need a reason to be highly motivated to leave behind what is comfortable to discover new possibilities. What are the reasons that disrupt the ambiguity of the pros and cons of risking something new?

In a previous post, I gave the example of turning a loss into a positive. In a subsequent post, I discuss the evidence that innovators and creators are playing it safe because the perceived risks are too high to explore possibilities with unknown outcomes. Next I will explore examples of reasons that have motivated people to "disrupt the ambiguity" created by new possibilities.