Baton Innovation

Innovation is the secret sauce of our modern world. We talk about it often. We pin our hopes on it. We see it as a competitive advantage. Ironically, despite how much we discuss innovation, we have a flawed view of how it looks behind the scenes.

Webster defines innovation as “the introduction of something new”—even the official definition is wrong! We expect innovative ideas to be revolutionary and groundbreaking. We dream of self-driving cars, jetpacks, and consuming all of our calories in liquid form—yes, this is an active idea.

Peter Drucker defined innovation as a “new view of the universe where we could create order by taking risks”. I love this definition because it doesn’t say anything about earth-shattering ideas. He even thought innovation encompasses “boring” things like processes and organization.

Innovation is incremental. Little things become big things. Take a look at the 1984 Macintosh release by Apple. It contained a radically new graphical interface that introduce the concepts we use every day: desktop, folders, and applications

Apple gets the credit for this interface but they didn’t invent it. They actually got it—or stole it depending on your perspective—from Xerox PARC. How similar was Apple’s interface to Xerox? Take a look for yourself.

I call this Baton Innovation. I based it on the Olympic sport of relay racing where runners pass a baton to each other as they run the track. Companies are passing the baton to each other, building on the ideas of others. Apple took the interface baton from Xerox and ran with it.

Baton Innovation is everywhere. Descartes is famous for saying “I think, therefore I am” in 1617 but he was simply running with the baton from St. Augustine, who said “For if he doubts, he lives” 1000 years earlier. It’s easier to see the baton handoff with hindsight.

The key in Baton Innovation is the timing of the handoff. If you’re too early or too late, you risk dropping the baton or losing the race’s momentum. Look at this Japanese team to see what happens when you fumble the handoff.

Our world is littered with ideas that failed in the handoff. I recently saw a new wearable device that is meant to replace a computer keyboard. This product is too early for a proper baton handoff. They may get customers, but it won’t replace the ubiquitousness of keyboards.

Wearable keyboards are too early

On the ground, you will see fallen batons like the Segway, Google Glass, and Cheetos Lip Balm—can’t believe this one didn’t make it!

Think of how many startups and companies reinvent the wheel instead of catching the right baton at the perfect time. Don’t start a new race. Build on the moment of others.

Baton innovation occurs in the micro and macro. The micro is your own company. Teams will pass the baton internally and continuously build new products. The macro is history. Apple creates the app store, which passes the baton to other companies for building new apps.

There’s a natural conflict in the analogy. You may not want to “pass the baton” to competitors or even internally. You will guard it jealously from other companies. However, over a long period, the baton will always be passed on. Employees at XEROX PARC didn’t want to pass the baton to Steve Jobs. It happened anyway.

Whenever you hear anyone talk about innovation, remember that your goal is moving human history forward by an inch. You do that when you clutch the next baton.

Featured Image by Zach Lucero

One more thing before you go!

I send a weekly newsletter called the Growth Needle. It's short, sweet, and full of interesting—and dare I say provocative—ideas. It's the best way to access my latest thinking and share your own thoughts. The next edition will be out on Tuesday, and you can receive it by subscribing below.

Want to see the goods before signing up? No problem! Here are a few of the recent editions: