Ideas, Vision, Innovation: Fantasy vs. Reality

Simply put, I think you need an idea and a vision to be innovative. Sounds simple enough.

I’ve read that good ideas are hard to come by, vision even harder and innovation rare. I don’t buy it. I believe innovation is difficult, but probably not for the reasons you might expect. On the other hand I don’t believe that ideas are hard to come by or that vision is rare.

I think ideas are like change in your pocket and you tend to collect more than you think. If you’re like me, and I believe most people are, you probably have several ideas every day about changing how something is done, how to make something better or what the next big thing should be. You know what I mean. All those moments throughout the day when you say something like “what if they…” or “why didn’t they…” or even “wouldn’t it be cool if …”. You know what I’m talking about, like “wouldn’t it be cool if they filled marshmallows with hot fudge”. Yes, yes it would.

Last week I was sitting at the kitchen table working when I happened to look out the window to see a busted sprinkler spewing water into the air. Bummer. My first thought wasn’t to jump up and fix it, although I did. No, my first thought was “why doesn’t someone make a sprinkler system that repairs itself”. That’s an idea. Realistic or not, it’s an idea. One could try to build a self-repairing sprinkler head if they really wanted to. Not sure how that would work, but that’s why God created engineers.

Anyway, I decided to do a little experiment where I kept track of all those “what-if moments” for a few days; turns out that I have between five and ten each day. Try it sometime. I bet you’ll find that you have a similar experience. Not all ideas are gems, of course. Some are pure garbage while some may be worth further investigation. That’s where vision comes in. If you can “see” how your idea fits into the world around you then I think you have vision. And I believe that most people know where their idea belongs, otherwise the idea wouldn’t have popped into their head. Yeah, roasted hot-fudge filled marshmallows would go real nice between two graham crackers.

The difficulty with ideas and vision comes when you try to turn them into reality. To be innovative reality requires that you turn an idea and vision into something tangible, and the problem with building something tangible is that you often have to rely on other people for help. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, i.e. small things that take off for no identifiable, reproducible reason – Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc – but in general you have to get other people to buy into your idea and vision to make it happen. And therein lies the problem.

Most people have their own idea about how the world should work and it doesn’t necessarily agree with yours (or mine). That’s how we end up with such variety in everything around us, from electronics to food, cars, clothes and so on. Variety is good, but not when it compromises good ideas and a solid vision.

Have you ever tried to explain something to someone only to look up and see that they’re not on the same page as you? Sure you have. Everyone has. Sometimes vision is difficult to explain or can’t be written down. And even if you manage to explain something in a manner that makes sense, people will often want to change the idea. I think this happens with most ideas because the idea makes sense to some, but not all. I see this all the time in my current job. Battles are often waged over the weirdest things.

I often wonder how much is lost over decisions made by committee. It’s difficult to say, but I certainly think it stymies the innovative process. How many average ideas have sprung from compromise? Too many, I fear. This must be where the saying “you can’t win every battle” came from. It’s true, you can’t win them all. Unfortunately every lost battle comes at a price to someone.

I think the days of mad scientists working alone in their labs are over, and that makes me a bit sad. Just because the process has evolved doesn’t mean it’s better.

It’s a strange world we live in.

6 thoughts on “Ideas, Vision, Innovation: Fantasy vs. Reality”

  1. I think we still have mad scientists in the world, we just won’t hear about them until they create something remarkable.

    To be a mad scientist requires a drive to push until you make that discovery. It means sacrificing everything for the dream.

  2. Perhaps, but I think you’re confusing mad scientist with people trying to make money or be “successful”. Most of the people I’ve met throughout my life and career that I’d consider a mad scientist we driven by curiosity rather than “sacrificing everything for the dream”. I’ve met a Nobel Laureate that simple loved acid-base chemistry. He enjoyed his research, nothing more. Along the same lines I had the pleasure of being taught by a professor that was a pioneer in microwave techniques in analytical chemistry. You know what drove him? He thought it was cool. He had kept pretty normal work hours. He enjoyed camping and going fishing with his dog.

    I don’t believe most “creative people” go in search of “that discovery”. I think they simply pursue their vision. Academics seems to be the place where this type of activity occurs most frequently. The non-academic world is full of “driven” people in search of the next big thing. Unfortunately that has little to do with vision and a lot to do with the love of power and money. The more I read of the success of the “most powerful people in the world”, the more I realize these people are not innovators, but rather opportunists looking to make a buck.

  3. Nope. I’m not confusing it with money, or success.

    I was going to write a response to this on my weblog, but after finding this on The Oatmeal about Nikola Tesla, I don’t need to write about it. It does a much better job than I ever could.

    When I read what you were saying all I could think of was Tesla. He was the mad scientist of mad scientists. Maybe you don’t have to give up everything, but he certainly did, and it’s exactly who I thought of when reading your post.

  4. The more I read of the success of the “most powerful people in the world”, the more I realize these people are not innovators, but rather opportunists looking to make a buck.

    I agree for the most part. But there are still some people out there who see a problem, and find a find a way to fix it just for the accomplishment and not for fame or money.

    There’s always room for cello

    I used to work with in the same pharmacy as the pharmacist who invented the Automix®. While he made a lot of money after selling it, he first created it to make TPN compounding easier at work.

  5. I realize there are people out there that still invent for the sake of inventing, but our society certainly doesn’t celebrate them. It’s a shame. Thanks for the cello video. Cool stuff.

    BTW – If you keep going like this you’ll have to change your title to The Optimistic Pharmacist.

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