Aha moments Don't Exist in Innovation

Aha Moments are a work of fiction

There are many mistaken ideas about innovation -- namely the “aha moment” theory of innovation, and how crippling this is to our actual engagement with innovation. Many ask for examples of aha moments and how innovation actually happens. Well, here is a fantastic one.

This is from the wonderful book The Box by Marc Levinson about the “invention” of the shipping container — an innovation that truly changed everything. It is a brilliant book on many levels. One reason in particular jumps out – how clearly and strongly the author Marc Levinson debunks the whole “aha moment” theory. Here is what he has to say about it:

“Many aspects of the response to The Box were startling, but perhaps the most unexpected concerns a widespread stereotype about innovation. In his later years, Malcom McLean, the former trucker whose audacious scheme to create the first containership line is recounted in chapter 3, was frequently asked how he came up with the idea of the container. He responded with a tale about how, after spending hours in late 1937 queuing at a Jersey City pier to unload his truck, he realized that it would be quicker simply to hoist the entire truck body on board. From this incident, we are meant to believe, came his decision eighteen years later to buy a war-surplus tanker and equip it to carry 33-foot-long containers.

The story of this “Aha!” moment does not appear in The Box, because I believe the event never occurred.” – Levinson, Marc. The Box (pp. xi-xii).

This aha moment never occurred — nor did any other -- because innovation is not generated by disembodied ideation, shower thoughts, or aha moments. Innovation manifests over time in a distributed nonlinear fashion. What exactly happened? Let’s just say — you really need to read this book — it is that good. What we can say was that the shipping container took its time to emerge — after 18 years of wrestling with potentialities it finally began to take hold and generate a paradigm shift and ultimately a novel world which we now inhabit.

If we look deeply enough we will notice most innovations follow a similar trajectory – strange nonlinear processes full of feedback loops, failures, restarts, surprising swerves and leaps — all over many many iterations.

So, what innovation world have you been perturbating for the last 18 years?

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