I’m reading a great book about lightbulbs. I’d never stopped before to really thing about them. At best, they were something i lamented when they failed and grumbled at when i ran out of. I’d never considered them as a powerful social force or catalyst for innovation. All of which shows how perspective is a great leveller.
Lightbulbs stole away the night: they enabled factories to operate for longer, faster, more accurately. They created a new class of engineers and trades dedicated to maintaining the vast electrical grids required to power them and they acted to deter crime, encourage literacy and expand our urban hubs.
Famously, it took Edison (and many competitors and compatriots) a long time to perfect the lightbulb. It’s often used as an example of why you have to fail to succeed.
Factories centralise resources, sitting as they do at the nodes in networks: they bring together labour and parts to create artefacts, anything from cars to keyboard or frozen dinners. As Henry Ford would have recognised, they run on lines, quite literally: railway lines to transport goods in and out, the winding lines of roads to deliver people and products, power lines, the lines of water or steam pipes, production lines, lines of authority and phone lines to call when something goes wrong.
Lines connect, but they do so in a retroactive fashion: we decide what we want to connect, we build a connection and then we tend to leave it alone. There’s nothing desperately proactive about a line.
Tangles are another matter: when the factory is deserted, derelict, the windows smashed as it’s utility is usurped by evolutions in process and demand, often what’s left are tangles, lines of wire and cable inextricably entwined, divorced from it’s purpose and leading nowhere. Tangles epitomise dereliction.
What about cutting the cord? Cutting ourselves adrift? Losing the lifeline? Hanging on the line. Walking the line. Lining up. We are slaves to lines.
Innovation may mean broadening our view: it may mean redrawing lines. Erasing them. Severing them. Making new tangles, nodes and strings. It may involve swinging from the line and seeing where we land.
Factories run on efficiency: every line running to capacity, every cable working, every lightbulb lit.
To process, innovation may be anathema. It’s a distraction, it’s chaos in the system. But without it, all our lines get tangled, all our systems and processes become derelict, destined to history, oblivion.
Melodramatic? Maybe not: in the Social Age, every fundamental business model is changing. Every system is adapting. The nature of work, retail, banking, technology, communities, it’s all up in the air.
Organisations have to unlock innovation and develop a mindset that allows it to thrive: they have to find ways to disrupt the lines in safe or safe-ish ways. They need creativity, agility. They need leaders who can create meaning and take a broad perspective and teams who can solve problems and share their stories.
We say ‘When the lightbulb goes off‘, but it has two meaning: is the bulb going off when you have a great idea, or is it going off as you close the door to the factory for the last time.
Innovation or dereliction? It’s your choice.