Over the years there has much debate on whether creativity related to innovation or invention can be structured, or whether it is one of happenstance. It’s an important question for New Business Development and R&D leaders to answer as it affects the fundamental design of such organizations. If one looks at recent R&D trends one would say that after World War II there was a real trend towards “Ivory Towers” and innovation or invention based on happenstance. During the 1980s and early 1990s the trend was in the other direction, which is innovation-on-demand.
Before launching into the pros and cons of each approach one must look at the historic perspective. Looking at Schumpeter’s technology long-waves one sees that technology cycles have progressively been shortening, as seen in the “Schumpeter’s waves accelerate” figure.

Schumpeter’s waves accelerate

Nuala Beck and Associates conducted detailed industry studies and knowledge ratios on over 300 North American industries in the late 1990s. They also found compressing technology long-waves. Their categorization was a “commodity” driven era of the Industrial Revolution prior to around 1918. The key factors they found during this timeframe were cheap steel, textiles, coal, steel, and railroads. Their second era was categorized as “manufacturing” driven, from 1918 to around 1981. The key factor during that time frame was very cheap energy, especially oil. The four growth engines were automobiles, machine tools, housing, and retailing. Enabling infrastructures were highways, airports and telephones. The last cycle they looked at was the time since 1981. There the key factor has been cheap microchips. The four engines of growth during this time were computers & semiconductors, health and medical, communications and telecommunications, and instrumentation. Enabling infrastructure has been telecommunications satellites, fiber optics, LANs and WANs, and mobile communications.

DuPont’s Four Waves of Innovation

Long cycles can be found as well in large companies that have been in existence for many decades. For example DuPont found they have a 15-20 year innovation cycle as shown in the “DuPont’s Four Waves of Innovation” figure. The emphasis shifts from a period of discovery research to a later period of consolidation. This 17 year cycle appears characteristic for just a few specific industries and companies, if for no other reason than the data set is very small.

The point again is the technology long-wave times are compressing dramatically and the methodology associated with the invention and innovation have changed as well. What might have been an appropriate creativity or innovation approach in the 1700s is not necessarily the best approach for the 2000’s. As an example, in the mid-1990s Industrial Research Institute surveyed 50 Fortune 500 companies looking for how high-performance invention and innovation was occurring. The survey results were mixed. 54% of the over 200 technical R&D leaders surveyed felt that invention is mostly an individual effort and is not a team effort. Innovation on the other hand was felt by all to be mostly a team effort. In contrast 21% of those surveyed felt that there was a team approach clearly present with respect to invention too. This group felt the both invention and innovation were strongly at team in collaborative effort. Further they felt the both invention and innovation systems can be understood and improved upon by organizing them effectively.

Recent surveys in the 2000s are equally mixed but now moving to team approaches. There is usually a group that believes that if you hire good people share with them the mission, values and objectives of an organization and turned them loose, good things will happen. The contrasting group believes that it is important to go about invention and innovation in a structured manner if one wants to become one of the most productive entities in the world.