Who Built What?

The catch phrase of the Republican National Convention, “We Built It,” was a staged response to a strategically clipped quote from a speech by President Obama. As part of the government versus business debate, it has hopefully run its course. But as a lesson on innovation, it feels like a missed opportunity.

hargadon_oct2012As background. In a July talk in Roanoke, Va., the President noted “if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own” (the full text of these comments here). He was alluding to the public infrastructures that required government investment and created the foundation on which all businesses compete: the roads and bridges, the fire and police services, the energy grid and the Internet.

So began a brief but intense firestorm in which Republicans used these words to argue the President didn’t understand what it took to build a business. Speaking on the final night of the convention Staples founder Tom Stemberg epitomized this attitude: “They just don’t get it. They don’t get it because they don’t believe in the spirit of the entrepreneur. They don’t understand what it means to risk money to create something new. They don’t understand the hard work it takes to get a business off the ground.”

This is essentially the nature-versus-nurture question applied to innovation: do some entrepreneurs possess innate qualities that made them successful (and thus solely responsible for their success), or are they the fortunate products of a supporting environment?

For me, it’s too important a question to leave lying in the mud of this political season. It reflects our shared understanding of what innovation is and, equally important, what it takes to be successful.

In the 19th century, historian Thomas Carlyle popularized the notion that, in his words: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The rest of us are so much flotsam and jetsam. It’s a history written about, if not by, the victors and soon afterwards the counter-argument emerged that such great men were products of their societies and their success benefited from work done by those who had gone before.

Innovation, and particularly entrepreneurship, remains one of the last bastions of the great man theory, where the notion of a single individual building an empire remains the archetype (and the best headline). But are these the best role models we can be giving the next generation?

Henry Ford was once asked to testify on the intellectual ownership of his work, and he replied:

“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work… . Had I worked 50 or 10 or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.”

Mass production was built originally from the development of machine tools and factory systems capable of producing interchangeable parts. It was an idea first developed in England and France, then promoted by Congress and the War Department as a necessary domestic industry, and funded through federal procurement contracts. Over the next century, interchangeable parts spread from the production of muskets to agricultural equipment, canning, sewing machines, and bicycles before being adopted, first by Henry Ford, in the auto industry.

And, of course, demand for the new automobiles was also fueled by investments in rural road improvements over the next decades, culminating in 1956 with the Federal Highway Act of President Eisenhower.

Or consider Sir Isaac Newton who, in a famous letter to his intellectual rival Robert Hooke, once described how his work benefited from those of his rivals and his predecessors:

“What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

So important is this phrase (itself borrowed from yet others before him) that it is now inscribed on the British two-pound coin.

Even Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, not known as the most humble of celebrities, shows more humility than was on display at the RNC. Growing up overseas, Bryant had to learn the game by studying tapes of the great players who went before him. He said:

“There’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. I seriously have stolen all of these moves from all these great players…I just try to do them proud, the guys who came before, because I learned so much from them. It’s all in the name of the game. It’s a lot bigger than me.”

The history of innovation is a history of incremental improvements. Each new idea, each new entrepreneur, works with and builds on the ideas, the tools, and the people that came before them. While the results are often revolutionary, the process is still incremental, .

It does take a lot of hard work to get a business off the ground, but imagine how much harder it would be without those who came before. Rather than setting up business success as purely an individual achievement, I offer some better words to live by:

  • To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.
  • If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants
  • I learned so much from them… It’s a lot bigger than me.

(This post originally appeared as Who Built What?, at The Hargadon Files)