Tolstoy on innovation

Ideas are overrated. I’ve said this before, but I just ran across this quote from Isaiah Berlin, describing Leo Tolstoy’s approach to understanding war and history. If we take his meaning to heart, we could all be better students of innovation.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy struggled with how the epic — the great arcs of war and peace in society — were shaped by the ideas and actions of the individuals involved. And how they were not. He might as well have been talking about innovation.1

Only those orders or decisions issue by commanders now seem particularly crucial (and are concentrated upon by historians) which happened to coincide with what later actually occurred; whereas a great many other exactly similar, perfectly good orders and decisions, which seemed no less crucial and vital to those who were issuing them at the time, are forgotten because, having been foiled by unfavourable turns of events, they were not, because they could not be, carried out, and for this reason now seem historically unimportant.”

For every great idea, many other people will have had ‘exactly similar, perfectly good ideas.’ But something happens around the time those ideas enter the larger organization and social context that prevents them from be carried out.


We spend so much of our time thinking about having the right ideas — and the right cafeteria, personal time, free soda, and mingling spaces — that we lose sight of the context in which innovation takes place.

Individuals act in organizations acting in industries — at particular moments in time. Pity the young visionary working in a rigid bureaucracy, the brilliant scientist solving a problem outside her firm’s markets, or the entrepeneur that shows up a few years too soon, or too late, to launch a new industry.

Ideas alone are nice and sometimes even necessary, but they are not what puts the epic in innovation. Innovation happens when good ideas emerge in companies ready to change, in industries ready to be changed. The more clearly we see this, the better was can focus our own best efforts.

  1. From Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehod and the Fox (1953: 27)