The next big thing always starts out looking like nothing at all.

Staff Writer

One of the most often told stories about innovation is that of Alexander Fleming and his discovery of penicillin. Returning after a summer holiday in 1928, the solitary Scottish scientist noticed that a strange mold had contaminated the bacteria cultures he was growing. That single observation would change the world.

At least, that’s how the story is usually told. What really happened is that when Fleming published his findings, no one really noticed because what he discovered couldn’t have cured anyone. It wasn’t until a decade later that his paper was unearthed by another group of scientists who engineered it into the miracle cure we know today.

The truth is that the next big thing always starts out looking like nothing at all because it arrives out of context. In other words, great innovations not only change the world, the world changes them and while that’s in progress, no one really knows how things will turn out. That’s what nobody tells you about innovation. To do it well you need to learn to live in a state of confusion.

The 30 Years Rule

Penicillin’s long gestation — it wasn’t made commercially available until 1946 — is more the rule than the exception. In fact, the truth is that its time to market was greatly shortened because the US government ordered more than two dozen pharmaceutical companies to begin manufacturing the drug for the war effort.

Electricity and the internal combustion engine took even longer. Although the initial technologies were developed in the in the early 1880’s, widespread adoption and economic impact didn’t come until the 1920s. It took that long for things like infrastructure, and complimentary technologies to build up and for new practices to arise that made use of new capabilities.

Although we tend to think that things move much faster today, the path from discovery to productivity doesn’t seem to have shortened. It wasn’t till about thirty years after Douglas Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos that personal computers started showing up in the productivity numbers. More recent advances, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and cancer immunotherapy follow similar timelines.

So innovation is never a single event, but usually takes about thirty years to move from discovery to engineering to transformation. That’s just a rule of thumb, sometimes it can be longer or shorter, but we’re talking decades, not months or years.

Unlikely Combinations

One reason that innovation takes so long is that lone technologies rarely make much of an impact alone. Just as the automobile needed roads and gas stations and electricity needed appliances, modern technologies need an ecosystem of support in order to really change the world. After all, what would an iPhone be without an app store?

Yet combinations also play an important role in discovery. In the case of penicillin, one of the reasons why Fleming’s discovery never gained traction was that there was no way to produce enough of it to be therapeutically effective. Part of the answer came in the form of corn steep liquor, a fermentation medium common in the American Midwest, but unheard of in England, where Fleming lived and worked.

Again, this is more the rule than the exception. In fact, in a study that analyzed 17.9 million scientific papers, it was found most breakthroughs occur when conventional wisdom from one field is combined with a smidgen of insight from some unlikely place. It is often that small piece of information that breaks a logjam and points to entirely new directions.

Innovation, at its core, is about combination. The only way to break free of old paradigms is to continually seek out new things and then merge, mix and incorporate those with things you already know.

Exploring Unlikely Places

In researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I talked to dozens of great innovators who were, in many ways, very diverse. Some were outrageously successful executives and entrepreneurs. Others were scientists who made breakthrough discoveries. Some were funny and outgoing. Others were quiet and thoughtful. There didn’t seem to be one “type.”

Yet one aspect of their personalities was amazingly common. Almost all were tremendously nice and generous people who wanted to be helpful. They were also intensely curious, asking me questions about myself and my work. Often, I got the feeling that they were almost as interested in me as I was about them.

When you think about it though, it begins to make sense. Innovation needs exploration. The more you explore, the more likely you are to come across that random smidgen of insight that will help you solve a problem. Being a sharing person increases the amount of people who are willing to share with you. Generosity can actually be a competitive advantage.

However, constantly searching and exploring takes you into unfamiliar places where your knowledge and experience provide little guidance. That can be uncomfortable, but it is also absolutely essential to coming up with profoundly new ideas.

Transcending Uncertainty

One of my biggest heroes is the physicist Richard Feynman. Besides the pathbreaking discoveries he made in his own field, he also helped establish new fields such as nanotechnology, quantum computing did important research in virology. Still though, he admitted that he spend most of his time in a state of confusion.

What made Feynman — and many other great innovators as well — different, is that he was able to revel in his own inability to understand things and transform confusion and uncertainty into wonder. He knew many things, but he was most happy with unknowing and took pleasure in finding things out.

Yet nobody ever seems to talk about that. We imagine great innovators to be those with almost godlike powers of vision. We see Steve Jobs standing on stage in triumph and rarely take note of his many failures and missteps. Nobody ever talks about the pain of muddling through a problem for years when it seems like an answer will never reveal itself.

That’s a shame, because to do anything significant you have to muddle through. If answers were easy to come by somebody else would already have found them. Investors want predictability. Managers want results. But great innovators learn to become comfortable with their own limitations and live in a state of confusion, chipping away with no guarantee of success.

That’s how things move forward.