He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
GEORGE ORWELL, Nineteen Eighty-Four
What has been done, thought and felt in the past constrains what is likely to be done, thought and felt in the future. In other words, the past has a tendency to shape the future. This might seem an unremarkable thought, but its impacts play out in significant ways when thinking about innovation.
Why? Well, innovation involves something new and something new means adaptation of some kind. And since innovations are used by people, it’s the adaptations that people need to make – at the individual level, as well as the level of the firm and the economy – that determine the fate of most innovations.
At the level of the individual, human beings have evolved to have highly efficient ways of dealing with the world. We start out asking an endless series of questions to help understand the world around us. As we get older though, we start to develop classifications systems for accommodating new information. We also develop heuristics which aid in decision making, so we don’t need to think about every situation from scratch. This allows us to efficiently deal with complex problems, but it also creates constraints in the way that we think.
Warren Berger outlines the problem this presents for creativity in his recent book A More Beautiful Question. In that text, Berger points out that the number of questions asked by children declines significantly after the age of 4 – partly because educational systems discourage questioning (which can challenge authority) and partly because children start to develop systems for dealing with new information, rather than relying on questions. He then points out that a consequence of this change is that we have a reduced ability ask questions that can lead to the creation of truly transformative innovations. Our thought patterns, behaviours and habits also influence our receptivity to new ideas as well as our understanding of them which in turn places constraints on how or whether we adopt those transformative innovations.
At the level of the firm, this process is repeats itself. In their early stages, new enterprises tend to be a hotbed of innovation, as ways of thinking and doing business remain relatively fluid. However, over time these tend to become solidified into what we call corporate culture. In many ways this is a good thing. It reduces the amount of effort required to get things done, it can free up mental capacity to deal with the unexpected and it creates the continuity that allows firms to survive staff changes. However, it also constrains what a business can do.
Clayton Christensen made this point in his seminal text, The Innovator’s Dilemma. In that book, he points out that well run established firms, run by capable people, can fail because of their inability to change and their commitment to the past. This is one of the central tenants of disruptive innovation and a powerful demonstration of how the past can influence the future when it comes to both the production and adoption of innovation.
Finally, a similar pattern occurs at an economy wide level. There are a number of strains of economic theory that use evolutionary models to help predict patterns of economic development. These models assume that change originates from a number of sources, but that the prior state of the system influences the direction it can realistically move in next. At a practical level, this seems entirely sensible. You wouldn’t expect us to move from the internal combustion engine to hydrogen powered hover cars in a single step; the mental leap would be as problematic as the technological one. As a result, economies follow a smooth trajectory of technological development, even when some individual innovations are radical or disruptive in nature.
So what does this mean for the development and adoption of innovations? In terms of innovation, it highlights that unconventional thinking can be needed to develop the breakthrough ideas that underpin high value developments. This idea is regularly explored in discussions of innovation culture and the innovation process more generally. What gets less attention though is that the very people that are expected to be the adopters of an innovation may well be constrained by their prior thinking in adopting that innovation. The translation of novel ideas into practical technologies that are widely taken up needs to consider both the creation of the innovation itself, as well as the context into which it is introduced. Current thinking can constrain adoption, or stop it altogether (with innovations of the alter type often being described as ‘before their time…’).
There are ways around this, of course, but it requires a degree of self-awareness and knowledge of the patterns that direct our decision making. Another good example of how to avoid the past constraining the future is the lean startup movement. This approach looks to place a ‘minimum viable product’ into the market before executing a series of ‘pivots’ to find out what will really work, rather than guessing beforehand. This can still come unstuck if you ask the wrong people based on prior expectations of your market. But it’s a step ahead of being an unconscious slave to yesterday.