Illustration by Nick Lowndes
© Nick Lowndes

The Innovations catalogue is lodged in the memory of anyone who grew up in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s. Every Sunday the compendium of cut-price gadgets fell out of newspapers, offering ludicrous inventions that promised to solve everyday problems.

Arachnophobic? Try the Spider Catcher (“Lets you scoop up spiders and deposit them back outside without any harm to the insect, you or your nerves!” £7.95). Sagging jowls? The Chin Gym is for you (“A personal isometric facial weightlifting system to trim, tone and firm,” £39.95).

Everyone was fond of Innovations but there was a problem. Few people bought anything because the inventions were not innovative at all. They were novelties. As comedian Stephen Merchant pointed out, for every customer “there were thousands of people who looked through and laughed at the absurdity of a motorised tie rack”.

In 2003, after 20-odd years, Innovations closed — but its spirit lives on in the modern workplace, where the word is overused. A search on LinkedIn reveals 3,690,455 people with “innovation” in their job titles. That’s a lot of original thinking. Or perhaps not.

“I am innovating!” a manager says when they do something different, or slightly different, or pile more work on to staff. I have heard “innovating” used to describe everything from opening an Instagram account to bolting routine tasks onto the jobs of skilled workers. Change for change’s sake and cutting resources are dressed up as innovation.

Worse, we have bought into the myth of the “innovator”, the lone hero whose ingenuity and foresight propels the rest of us to a dazzling future. The obvious example is the late Steve Jobs, Apple founder and chief executive, widely assumed to have invented the iPhone.

Jobs was a compelling figure, but as author Brian Merchant points out in his book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, more than 20 people are listed on Apple’s 949 patent, which gathered the fundamental components of the original device. According to Merchant, Apple in many cases adapted genuine innovations, such as touch-screen technology. IBM had launched a smartphone-like device in 1993 — the Simon, whose prototype had a touch-screen, app-like icons, internet access and email.

I interviewed Brian Merchant for the FT Business Books podcast recently and he was unequivocal. “This lone inventor is one of the craziest, most misleading and most persistent myths of all time,” he said. “But [invention] takes a whole ecosystem of work and collaboration. It’s almost incomprehensible the scale that collective achievements operates on. Ideas are in the air.”

Apple is great at technology as well as marketing and product design. But there is no lone genius.

The myth is being skewered at Stanford Business School. Stefanos Zenios’s popular Startup Garage class, in which students design and test concepts, begin with the premise that innovation is not an event. “The moment of inspiration is a process, which relies on the hard work of multiple people,” he says.

He encourages students to consider the iPod, without which the iPhone would not have been possible. What fuelled the iPod’s success, he says, was the iTunes Store, Apple’s paid-for music download service. “And that was basically a legal version of Napster,” he says, referring to the file-sharing music service, founded in 1999, which ran into copyright infringement difficulties. In other words, iTunes — and the iPod and then the iPhone — were evolutions and the result of the ingenuity of many.

So what is genuine innovation? Prof Zenios offers a definition: “It happens when needs and new technology come together to create an experience that is better than the previous or current experience.” New technology, he says, does not even have to be new, just applied for the first time to solving that problem. It arrives after hard work by many people, not one.

The Innovations catalogue professed to admire “the amateur inventor toiling away in the garden shed” — presumably on their own. Today, the curious can see the Innovations catalogue’s oddities online, from the cat lead (“Take your cat out for walkies!” £9.99) to the zippable tie (“The tie that zips up!” £6.95). You will find them on BuzzFeed, on a post headlined “17 Majestically Useless Items from the Innovations Catalogue”.

These novelties are preserved on the internet, that most disruptive and innovative of technologies and the product of the ingenuity of countless people. 

Helen Barrett is Work & Careers editor

This opinion article is taken from our European Business Schools special report

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