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Setting the Stage for Innovation

There is an interesting little article on innovation and Picasso over at Medium. Basically it suggests that radical innovation happens when the market is most receptive to it:

Sgourev’s analysis of Cubism suggests that having an exceptional idea isn’t enough: if it is to catch fire, the market conditions have to be right. That’s a question of luck and timing as much as it is of genius. The closest modern analogy to Picasso’s Paris is Silicon Valley in the early days of the dotcom boom, with art dealers as venture capitalists and entrepreneurs as artists.

This reminded me a lot of Duncan Watts’ research on influence on the web, where he concluded, “large scale changes in public opinion are not driven by highly influential people who influence everyone else, but rather by easily influenced people, influencing other easily influenced people.” In fact, Watts also used a fire to explain the dynamic in his conclusion:

Some forest fires, for examples, are many times larger than average; yet no-one would claim that the size of a forest fire can be in any way attributed to the exceptional properties of the spark that ignited it, or the size of the tree that was the first to burn. Major forest fires require a conspiracy of wind, temperature, low humidity, and combustible fuel that extends over large tracts of land. Just as for large cascades in social influence networks, when the right global combination of conditions exists, any spark will do; and when it does not, none will suffice.

The challenge, of course, as Watts points out in his research, is that consistently finding and predicting this environment is all but impossible. We may understand some of the factors, but the situation is just too complex to be anywhere near accurate. As much as we give credit to innovators who capture those radical moments, we also need to appreciate the role of luck in their success.

August 14, 2013 // This post is about: , , ,


  • Rob Day says:

    Hey Noah,

    Great post! Got me thinking WAY too much before lunch, but I guess that’s a good thing. I have a few disagreements/discussions on this topic.

    1. Sgourev’s analysis provides a foundation to appreciate conditions which is important. However, in defense of the innovators, perhaps the crux of Genius is knowing/feeling/anticipating the environment and executing art based on that.

    2. I would argue that people as a whole do not change. The world is CONSISTENTLY filled with easily influenced people. The only thing that changes is what ideas they are open to. Again the true genius; the real influence is understanding this before everyone else and acting against it.

    3. Watts analogy to a fire is an apt one to explain his perspective, but I could tell the same story against my thoughts. Wouldn’t one say that a ‘talented’ arsonist would know the factors that contribute to the greatest fire and be able to account and anticipate them and ignite the spark at the right time and place? Whereas a couple of kids with matches are flipping the coin and the result is luck based? Both could come to the same conclusion of a giant fire of course, but only one could do it relatively consistently.

    My conclusion on the topic is that we should certainly appreciate the environment and understand its power. However, I think these analyses take too much credit away from the innovators for their genius in executing against the right environment. Then again – maybe they just flipped a coin :)

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