What if Gutenburg didn’t invent the printing press?

Both Newton and Leibniz invented calculus.

Both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the theory of evolution.

Oxygen was discovered simultaneously by Joseph Priestly and Carl Wilhelm Schlee.

Two Frenchmen invented colour photography in the same year.

Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, both filed a patent for the telephone on the same day – 14 February, 1876.

At least 13 inventors other than Thomas Edison filed a patent for a glowing filament in a bulb of glass.

So if Johannes Gutenberg didn’t invent movable type printing, we would still have books because somebody else would have.

Most inventions are inevitable products of their time – an inventor mainly gets to put their stamp on it first. This isn’t to take anything away from inventors – they were all brilliant people. But the world has never been short of brilliant people.

If we have a good idea, chances are that it isn’t original. We are all better off sharing it with the world and finding the others rather than keeping it a secret.

Get lost

To discover something, you need to get lost.

To be lost is to have ‘no known path to one’s destination’. The process of discovering a new piece of land, a route through a thick forest or to scale a peak for the first time, by definition, requires an explorer to get lost. Since nobody has done it before, no known path exists.

When we choose to be innovators, artists and pathfinders, it is necessary to get lost along the way. That is part of the plan. To be lost isn’t the point, but it is an inevitable stepping stone.

If you don’t lose your way, you do not discover.

The arrow of innovation

In the 16th century, the Turks were already using a method to innoculate themselves against small-pox.

Before their babies turned 6 months old, they made a small incision in its arm and carefully introduced small-pox germs that were taken from the body of another child. This artificial introduction of the pathogen imbued the child with immunity against the disease.

This practice was in place long before Edward Jenner discovered vaccination.

We tend to think of scientific research leading to cutting-edge technology. But more often than not, the arrow moves in the opposite direction.

We made boats before we understood bouyancy. Glassmaking was invented 4000 years ago, well before we understood its science. Gunpowder was invented way before the Chemistry we now use to explain it. James Watt and Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine before the advent of Thermodynamics and the Carnot cycle.

Innovation stems more from use than from understanding. To innovate, you are better off tinkering around to see what works, rather than cultivating the perfect theory to later put it into practice.

Inpsiration: How innovation works

A bicycle for the mind

Steve Jobs called the computer a ‘bicycle for the mind’.

A computer is a bicycle for the mind given how it multiplies our intelligence. Yet, a bicycle is all but useless in the absence of a well-paved road. If you’re being chased by an elephant on the Serengeti shrub, a bicycle is useless.

For a computer to be useful, we need roads. Making computers is only a tiny part of the IT industry. Operating systems, programming languages, the internet, cybersecurity, email, e-commerce, touchscreens, artificial intelligence – the computer needs an enormous ecosystem for its potential to be realized.

Every innovation that hits the market isn’t a lost opportunity. Instead, it often creates the need for a whole new ecosystem to be built around it. The more we innovate, the more there is to innovate.

An obstacle to the unrealistic

Management and software development bear an interesting relationship.

If you invest $1 million in a software project to generate $1.1 million in value, you need all the project management you can muster. You need goals, schedules, deadlines, regular check-ins, progress reports and documentation.

If you invest $1 million in a software project in return for a chance to generate $50 million in value, you are probably better off with almost no management at all. Google Earth and Wikipedia were both developed without management oversight. Almost every open source software, which collectively generate billions in revenue, also doesn’t have managers behind them.

It turns out that for software projects with small, incremental wins, management is important. But for large, innovative leaps, management can get in the way.

Management helps us stick to realisitic plans. That is a feature. But is sometimes also a bug, for it prevents us from pursuing unrealistic projects that redraw our boundaries.