Following as Waiting or Betraying
In any field requiring constant innovation, the value of leadership is taken for granted. Consider Edison’s invention of the light bulb, Durand’s patenting of the tin can, or Kellogg’s discovery of flaked corn. An intrepid pioneer, bold and undaunted, does something new and it catches on. This is conventional wisdom. When something catches on, when an invention is adopted, and when other people start following and help the inventor makes his idea into a workable prototype, a website, a mass-produced item, and then brings it to the market, invention becomes innovation. This has long been acknowledged, but brings our initial question back in another form: how does this process start?
The Shirtless dancer and what Sivers forgot
When Derek Sivers first presented the idea that the leader is actually less important than the person who first follows, it was adopted very fast, which is no wonder given the stage where he appealingly and concisely delivered it:
This video which involves a lone, shirtless dancer who eventually attracts a huge crowd of imitators brilliantly illustrates the importance of the “First Follower”. It is clear how this can be applied to innovation: essentially, inventors need someone to believe and trust them if they are to make it from the “lone nut” phase to being a leader. Being smart, creative and charismatic is just something that helps you find people that will follow you. But it won’t take you the whole way from your invention to the moment where it is widely adopted.
And it’s precisely adoption that is the hallmark of innovation for most innovation practitioners. Mere invention is just the first step. What Sivers explains is closely connected to that articulation of invention and innovation, which arguably is at the center of any innovation management effort: what the inventor needs is followers, a tribe. And a tribe starts with a second person.
Sivers omits two things:
- In most cases leading is about more than being first
- Following is not just about imitating
It’s mostly about taking something further, or about doing something that the leader isn’t so good at in order to empower her and her idea. I’d go even further than this: being a good follower sometimes means to do something the leader doesn’t want you to do. Being a good follower sometimes means to betray the ones you follow. This is one of the subjects of Kleist’s play The Prince of Homburg where the prince achieves a resounding victory in a battle by attacking before the command is given. But it might be as true in real innovation as in fictional wars.
Betraying the leader as good following
Consider MP3 technology. The file extension name “mp3” was crowdsourced among employees of the Fraunhofer Institute in Munich in 1995, where most of the technology for the format had been developed. Originally, mp3 decoders were supposed to be cheap and public, and the encoders expensive and with very restricted access. Private users would only have access to decoders, basically mp3 Players. And record companies would have access to encoders and sell the music. This was the noble idea of the development team at Fraunhofer Institute. What happened? Well, while the inventors of the mp3 format were still trying to negotiate a deal with a record-company in Munich, a “follower” from Australia bought and hacked the expensive encoder and released encoding information to the public. The encoding information quickly spread and soon pretty much everyone with a computer was able to create mp3 files.
Now, it might seem that the Australian guy wasn’t a follower at all. I think he was. He was the one who insured that the format catches on. Without his intervention in favor of openness, someone might have made some money, but mp3 wouldn’t have become the no. 1 format for digital music.
Real followers can thus help their leaders succeed in ways they’d rather have avoided. In this case, the invention was lead to “catch on” because a follower opposed the use-scenario that the inventors had intended. The business model for digital music was broken before it even existed. And this remained pretty much the case until Apple came up with a real business model: the combination of iPod and iTunes store and thereby – somewhat coincidentally – strated to end the humiliating recent history of the record industry.
Steve Jobs, a first follower?
Well, you’ll say, there you have it: Steve Jobs, that’s definitely a leader. And you are right in one sense: he’s an innovator, he pushes products through to the market and he gets people to follow his company. He’s a leader in the hierarchical sense of the word. But in recent years, he hasn’t been a leader in the sense of coming first, the sense of leadership illustrated by Siver’s video above. As it appeared a few years ago, he isn’t even the inventor of Apple’s genious iPod+ iTunes store business model.
The concept for the iPod+iTunes store was not developed in 2001 by Apple but in … 1979 by an Englishman called Kane Kramer. Kramer’s portable music-player looked very much like an ipod, was called IXI and was linked to the idea of creating a store to purchase music in do-it-yourself mode. Kramer imagined getting music through a telephone line before the word downloading even existed. So, maybe Steve Jobs is just a good first follower. Or is he?
After over 20 years, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that he wasn’t: According to Wired, 21 year old James Campbell had been the first to follow his friend Kramer. Did Apple steal the idea? No. Unfortunately, Kramer had ran out of money long before the ecosystem was ready for his dream to live: when Kramer’s concept became reality his patent had long expired. What this shows is that innovation always happens within context. There are cases where inventions come too early. Likewise, Mp3 wouldn’t have spread so easily without the internet. Massive following is only possible when the infrastructure is ready.
Now, the question is: are these stories sad stories? I’m not sure. As one of my all-time favorite writers says:
“It’s not the person who first has an idea that owns it, but by the person who has it better.”
And sometimes having the thought better, just means to have it at the right moment in time.
Klaus-Peter Speidel is the VP of Communications at hypios, which provides enterprises with open innovation ecosystems.