The fields of innovation and entrepreneurship are undergoing a revolution of sorts. We are slowly and inexorably recognizing that our obsession with ideas—how to have them or how to buy them—fails to explain how breakthroughs actually happen. It's no longer easy to believe that a single idea drove Apple's iPod (which in a decade has become its biggest business) or Edison's lightbulb when we consider the dozens of other companies who were already selling those same ideas in the market when their proverbial and literal light bulbs went off. As with any scientific revolution (and conveniently self-referential), it's not a single idea that drives the revolution but rather a subtle accumulation of similarly new ideas from different sources. In this case, the revolutions is about the role of entrepreneurship, of action and experimentation, in making breakthroughs happen.
Thomas Kuhn's influential book, The Structure of Scientitific Revolutions, described the advance of science as periods of relative equilibrium swept away by infrequent revolutions—one paradigm, a prevailing set of theories about how the world worked, giving way to another. The revolution occurs when scientists can no longer ignore contradictory or unexplained observations.*
In the study of innovation, a new notion is taking hold: that we should be studying innovation as a process in which people act, experiment, learn, develop, and grow and, along the way, so too do their ideas, businesses, and networks. This approach differs dramatically from the ivory tower articles and consultant powerpoints about managing innovation as managing the generation of ideas which others can execute on. And it has been coming together for some time in niche markets where the shortcomings of traditional theories of innovation gets exposed like wingtips on a rocky trail.
One example is Steve Blank's work with startups and his belief that new ventures are nothing more than a set of hypotheses waiting to be tested. The role of entrepreneurs is to identify and test, through many small experiments, the idea of a business. Most importantly, it's the experiments and resulting learning, not the original idea, that defines the ultimate business. Blank has sinced teamed up with Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, who created a means for prototyping business models (the business model canvas). As Blank said of the partnership: "One of the key tenets of Customer Development is that your business model is nothing more than a set of untested hypotheses. Yet Customer Development has no structured and systematic way of describing a business model." The canvas provided that way.
Another example is Paul Hudnut's work in BOPreneurship—entrepreneurship for the bottom of the pyramid. In the programs Paul works with (eg, the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise Masters program at CSU, and the International Design and Development Summit, student teams and new ventures are pushed quickly into action testing their ideas about technologies and businesses. Talk meets walk much sooner—and it's important to train aspiring entrepreneurship in the doing of innovation rather than the thinking.
Doubtless I have forgotten or missed some other leading programs and writers who are seeing the same inadequacies with innovation theories and have helped move the revolution forward. Feel free to remind me.
Now these ideas are making it to mainstream. One new perspective is Peter Sims' book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries. I just ordered the book, so I can't do much more than gossip about it, but the general ideas sound right on the mark and I'm looking forward to reading it. Another is Clark Gilbert and Matthew Eyring's HBR artice, "Beating the Odds When you Launch a New Venture."*** If it's made it to HBR, the revolution is clearly on (or already over).
So here's to the revolution. Who knows, in ten years, maybe all business schools will be teaching people how to get things done rather than talk about it.
* As usual, wikipedia has the best common law** description of Kuhn's ideas here…
** And for my usage of the term common law as well. It is a matter of great debate whether the interpretation of ideas, like laws, remains with the original statutes or with their interpretation in use.
*** A nod to Rita McGrath and Ian MacMillan is necessary here, as they were way ahead on this concept with their 2000 work on Discovery Driven Growth for managing corporate R&D. Which points out that many of these same ideas were introduced before, but understood and applied in a different context.