Review: How Breakthroughs Happen

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 07-01-2003

How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate
By Andrew Hargadon
Harvard Business School Press, June 2003
320 pages, $29.95

If you want to understand how most technology breakthroughs happen, don't turn to your old physics, engineering or even management books. Instead, dust off your Elvis Presley records. That's the logical conclusion you might reach after studying the arguments put forth by Hargadon, an assistant professor of technology management at the University of California at Davis.

To oversimplify, Presley combined gospel music, rhythm & blues and a bit of country & western to create some of the earliest records in the style we came to identify as rock 'n' roll. Technological innovation happens the same way, Hargadon contends. He argues that most breakthroughs come about by someone putting together, and building off of, work that comes before. The myth of the lone inventor, laboring late into the night to create something that has not existed before, is just that—a myth, and one that dies hard.

Shattering the accepted folklore that icons of innovation such as Henry Ford, Eli Whitney and, most notably, Thomas Edison were "lone wolves" is a key contribution here. Hargadon establishes that in almost every case these inventors "borrowed" existing ideas and brought them together with the necessary people and materials to build on them. To turn the cliché on its head, these inventors were thinking simultaneously in multiple boxes, not outside one conventional box.

Take the "creation" of the assembly line. While credited to Ford, it really combines ideas that already existed, in bits and pieces, at slaughterhouses, breweries and the Singer Sewing Machine Co.

Ford combined three distinct ideas to make the assembly line work.

  • Workers, anchored in a stationary position, do the same job over and over again.

  • The work flows to them on a continuous basis. They neither have to wait for parts nor find themselves facing a backlog.

  • The parts they use are interchangeable. They can weld identical fenders onto every Model T—and every Explorer—without having to worry about whether the fenders will fit.

All three ideas already existed, individually, elsewhere.

Ford "just" combined these three separate ideas to create the assembly line.

Hargadon calls the process followed by Ford (and others) in creating new ideas "technology brokering." Its implications lead to two clear, if counterintuitive, conclusions about how innovation comes about.

First, if you want to create something new, look to the past: Search out existing ideas that can be combined in new ways. (Think how eBay is nothing but auction plus Internet.)

Second, it seems that organizational structure can be more important than individual creativity. Knowing where to look for ideas and how to network, and surrounding yourself with like-minded people—Edison worked with a team of 15 during his most fertile days—can be more valuable than individual insights.

It can be appealing to think of locking yourself in a room—with a workbench, perhaps—and waiting for inspiration to strike. The reality is that is not the most efficient way to come up with something new.

Reviewed by Paul B. Brown, the author of 14 business books including The Map of Innovation: How to Create Something Out of Nothing (written with Kevin O'Connor), just published by Crown Business. Please send comments on this review to editors@cioinsight-ziffdavis.com.