2 degrees of innovation

I’ve often wondered what it is that makes one company more innovative than another. Especially in tech, where innovation happens at some speed, and new technologies are rolled out every few weeks that take time to understand and digest, but soon become “core” for an innovator.

I’ve noticed a few things in the tech world, and in other areas of life, and it is that there is a pattern (or at least a partial pattern) with how innovation comes about. It’s not necessarily to do with how clever a person is. It does appear to do with who they listen to…

The most innovative companies and organisations generally have one or a few Edgers — people on the worldwide innovative cutting edge in their niche. This is the first degree. These are analogous to early adopters in a buying cycle, but are more innovation junkies than capitalists and consumers. These are the people, that when a new idea comes into the market place, they jump on it, and tell everyone they can that it’s the next big thing.

They then influence the wider group around them with their ideas. They are often sharers of information, and enjoy that experience and find value in it. They often produce proof of concept type solutions using the innovation for others to build on. This is where the actual Innovators come in. This is the second degree.

Edgers (1st) + Innovators (2nd) = Innovation

The Innovators come in and see the proof of concept solutions and identify places where that solution can help either the organisation or to generate new opportunities. This is why a person who creates a technology is often not the person who ultimately reaps massive benefits. They often can end up speaking at conferences, writing books, being held in high regard by a small community, but it’s often not the same thing as big rewards.

Innovators stand on the shoulders of Edgers

A simple example would be the Edgers behind Ruby on Rails. They built a technology and released it open source and did and are doing well out of consultancy, book writing, conferences etc. But the biggest innovation around that technology was when Innovators at (what was to become) Twitter got hold of it. Twitter was the second degree of innovation.

Why going to the right conference matters

I hear a lot about conferences and which ones should we go to and why. A lot of marketing goes into the “biggest” conference (usually by numbers of people) being important. But I’ve mostly found that bigger does not mean better.

My approach has always been to seek out the smaller conferences, where you are guaranteed a level of intimacy with the speakers, and the other attendees. The speakers could often be described as Edgers. The smaller conference fosters more conversation and also often allows for harder questions to be asked in any Q&A. It also generates a community around the ideas.

In my experience, the bigger the conference, the more likely it is to have “sales pitches” as talks, rather than first degree Edgers speaking about something new and cool. Edgers often aren’t the ones with the money.

The smaller and more defined the conference, the more likely you are to get interaction between Edgers and Innovators

So, I’m not going to go to the big conferences just to get amusing speakers with practiced talks telling everyone about how their 5 year old technologies help companies to make money (although there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not what I want).

I’m going to seek out the small, the clever, the fun, the exciting. Somewhere I can build relationships and develop ideas with people who are in it for the excitement of doing something new.

It’s not just about tech, but about everything

This is focussed on the tech world, but I think it resonates in other areas. If you are aiming to innovate and aren’t getting fed with the latest information from Edgers in your field, then you are going to struggle to be able to innovate in a truly meaningful way. It’s not impossible, but it is hard.

There are definitely analogies in non-tech based organisation and fields.

In my opinon, Whatever area you work in, getting to know and interact with Edgers on a personal level at a small conference will make it far more likely to become an Innovator in your own field.

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