When many people are asked to picture an innovator, an image comes to mind: a young, unemployed Steve Jobs-esque figure toiling away in his father’s garage until he builds a breakthrough innovation, then launches a startup that disrupts the market and changes the world.
This narrative is a poignant one, but it’s also problematic, because it’s simply not accurate.
People tend to think that innovations come from entrepreneurs. However, in my new book, Driving Innovation from Within, I show through research and numerous examples that it’s actually employees – and not entrepreneurs – who are society’s real innovators. In fact, the majority of the most transformative innovations in recent times have been conceived of by employees from within their organizations.
30 innovations that changed the world
To determine whether or not entrepreneurs are the true innovators of our time, I studied a list of the 30 innovations that have changed life most dramatically during the past 30 years, curated by PBS and Wharton Business School. That list included truly transformative innovations such as the personal computer, the internet, barcodes, DNA testing and sequencing, ATMs, fiber optics, microfinance, and more.
For each innovation, I asked three questions:
- Conception: Who conceived of the idea?
- Development: Who developed the idea into something that works?
- Commercialization: Who brought the idea to market?
If the accepted narrative of the entrepreneur innovator is accurate, then the answer to all three questions should be the same: an entrepreneur conceived of the idea, developed it into something that works, and brought the idea to market.
But my research into each of the 30 innovations on the list shows something very different.
Of the 30 innovations, only eight came from entrepreneurs. Employees conceived of 22 of them – including the internet, the ATM, digital cameras, the MRI and stents – while working for an organization.
Martin Cooper had been working for Motorola for 20 years when he came up with the concept of creating a smaller, less cumbersome, wireless version of the clunky car phone. Motorola released his innovation – the first mobile phone – to the public in 1983.
Tom Van Vleck was working for MIT when he developed a “mail” command that allowed people to exchange electronic messages with others on the same computer. Then, while employed by Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), a Boston-based technology company, Ray Tomlinson came up with the idea to connect the user’s name to the destination address by using the @ symbol, allowing electronic messages to travel between computers. Both men are credited with contributing to the invention of email.
Only seven of the 30 innovations on the list were developed by an entrepreneur working alone or with a small team. Most transformative innovations thrive when a larger team or community forms around the idea to develop it.
Dr. Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider came up with the idea of an “intergalactic computer network” while working for the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA supported his vision, and so, with their financial backing, he connected groups of computer scientists and researchers around the country who shared his foresight and could collaborate to help further his ideas. This led to the creation of a military computer network on which users could communicate and share information, which eventually evolved into what we today call the internet.
Only two of the 30 innovations were scaled by the original creators. In fact, in more than half of the cases, the innovator lost control, a competitor took over, and the innovation scaled thanks to a battle of players trying to commercialize it.
Roberto Olivetti, CEO of Italian manufacturer Olivetti, first came up with the idea to make a computer that could fit on a desktop in the 1960s. He handed the idea off to his top design team, which developed the Programma 101, a computer that was small enough to sit on a desk, and economical enough for an individual to be able to afford it. The PC became a hit after Olivetti exhibited it at the 1964 World’s Fair, and the competition took notice. Several years later, HP launched a copycat version, followed by the Soviet Union MIR program, Commodore, Micral, IBM, and Wang.
The story of the garage-dwelling entrepreneurial hero coming up with most of today’s innovations is a myth. As it turns out, we owe most innovations to the efforts and passions of internal innovators. To tell the true story of innovation, we would have to say that employees conceive of innovations, communities composed of corporations and institutions build them, and then the competition takes over to scale them.
Kaihan Krippendorff is the author of Driving Innovation from Within: A Guide for Internal Entrepreneurs (Columbia University Press, 2019), and founder of the consulting firm, Outthinker. Outthinker boasts that the growth strategies and innovations it has created have energized countless organizations, teams, and individuals and generated over $2.5 billion in revenue for Fortune 500 companies. Kaihan was shortlisted for the 2019 Thinkers50 Innovation Award.