In a recent article Peter Denning questions the common conception that organizations need to invest more in generating ideas to foster innovation. Instead he emphasizes the notion of practice, noting that we may actually be ‘idea rich, selection baffled and adoption poor’.
In extreme cases, our obsession with the idea leads us to look backward into successful innovations to reinvent the ideas that would be at their core, failing to recognize that experimentation and practice may have been the dominant success factors. An emblematic example that comes to mind is that of the BMX bike, which gradually emerged through the adhoc experimentations of a community of practitioners, rather than born out of a grand vision of a fully fledged BMX.
Without having to oppose ideation with practice, Denning has a point about the need to boost our practice capabilities. Edison’s often quoted ’10% inspiration, 90% perspiration’ delivers the same point. Denning identifies several ways by which we can boost practice:
a) Dissemination – Publicizing the idea and encouraging people to experiment with it (as opposed to keeping it in-house and pushing it through a programmatic development pipeline);
b) Education – Directly teaching people the new practice and/or building and distributing easy tools that help people get into the practice;
c) Value-creation – Starting a business that draws on the practice.
Coincidentally, I came across the story of how Antoine Parmentier finally turned the potato into an innovation.
In the second half of the 18th century the potato idea has been brought back from the New World for more than 200 years. If the power of ideas was enough to launch innovations, one would think that 200 years was a sufficient length of time to turn the potato idea into a success. But the idea has failed. The potato is still considered with obscurantist suspicion: since it grows underground it must be the work of the devil.
However, it is so easy and reliable to grow in times when famine is still common place in Europe, that in some places it starts to be cultivated to feed farm animals, pigs in particular. From pigs to prisoners there is only one small conceptual leap to make, even in the Age of Enlightenment. It is thus as a PoW that Antoine Parmentier tastes the potato for the first time. He must have enjoyed it and – being in the medical profession – must have been convinced by its nutrition benefits, for driving the adoption of the potato in his home country will become his call to fame.
Back from the PoW camp, Parmentier starts to disseminate: he invites intellectuals and scientists to dinners where they are served various meals featuring the starchy tuberous crop that Parmentier cultivates in a small field on the Left Bank in Paris, not far from where the Eiffel Tower would later stand. His dissemination work takes him and his so-called ‘Parmentières’ all the way to Versailles and the King’s table. The King and Queen approve.
Parmentier also tries to educate, publishing several recipe books. Bread being the main meal of the masses at the time, he elaborates ways to make potato-bread, thereby creating an easy tool to get people into adopting the potato practice.
Finally, without quite starting a business, he manages a value-creation masterstroke: with the patronage of the King, he gets soldiers to guard his potato field during the day, drawing people into thinking how valuable it might be. But Parmentier makes sure that the field is left unguarded at night. People start to come and steal the precious crop every night. Parmentier has won: 200 years after the potato idea, he’s successfully launched the potato practice.
image credit: art image from bigstock & larousse
Yann Cramer is an innovation learner, practitioner, sharer, teacher. He’s lived in France, Belgium and the UK, he’s travelled six continents to create development opportunities with customers or suppliers, and run workshops on R&D and Marketing. He writes on www.innovToday.com and on twitter @innovToday.