Something old, something new

How small changes can change everything.

There is (almost) nothing new under the sun.

Let us not ever misunderstand the true meaning of innovation. Innovation is rarely something entirely 'new' and innovation is rarely a 'big' deviation from prior art.

Innovation is a rarely something entirely new

To be clear: innovation is doing something for the first time. But whatever gets done for the first time usually rests on the shoulders of giants. Someone else already achieved (at least a part of) what you are trying to achieve, or what you managed to achieve, now. We are always just riffing on what other people accomplished at earlier dates.

It was the year 1673: Twenty-one years after Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape, twelve years before Johan Sebastian Bach was born and eighty-three years before Mozart's birth. This is when the composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (presumably, given the slightly different spelling of the surnames, no relation to Justin Bieber) wrote his "Battalia à 10".

This piece was written in response to the horrors of the Thirty Years' War which caused the deaths of many millions of people in central Europe. Biber, in the 2nd movement, creates polytonality through simultaneously using eight different folk songs, from different parts of Europe, in different key and time signatures. And, yes the result is every bit as complex as the previous sentence is - but also a great many times more 'beautiful' (for lack of a better adjective) than the previous sentence.

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Please listen to the second movement (at around 1:44) while keeping in mind the terrible background-story of the war, which Biber tries to capture. The eight different melodies (forged, forced and bullied into their reluctant semi-quodlibet unity) convey a deep message of horror and beauty - and it does so in a entirely innovative manner. (This video is a good primer if you wish to know more).

So, when Igor Stravinsky shocked the world with his "Rite of Spring" in 1913, Biber had already done some of what Stravinsky then did. And Biber did it almost a quarter of a millennium earlier. Yet, Biber was also not 'first'. Polytonality existed before him and will continue to exist. About 25 years ago, the mad genius, Captain Beefheart combined polytonality with 'poetry' in his "Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee".

"Its lips smiled needles. Its eyes rolled loose.
Her throat broke open. Glistened in the dew.
Red berries dangled like a dream of rubies too."

Artists will continue to innovate by studying what other artists did. Nine Inch Nails' "March of the Pigs" is in a time signature of three measures of 7/8 followed by one measure of 4/4! That is innovation. Yes, it builds on music that came before, but adds something entirely new too.

Businesses must strive to innovate too. They must do so if they also strive to become great, or stay great.

But, artistic pursuits encourage innovation while business structures actively discourage innovation through operationally-heavy KPIs, OKRs, SOPs, Best Practices, corporate hierarchies, low tolerances (even) for (the right types of) failure and much more.

You need to understand how to overcome those very real and very effective obstacles to innovation. These obstacles almost certainly exist in your business.

Innovations are often small deviations

Shakespeare's Macbeth just simply sounds sinister and eerie. How did he manage to do this? What words or phrases did he use to create this menacing atmosphere?

Yes, he did innovate with phrases such as "Double, double toil and trouble", but experts have agreed that there was more to this. They just could not agree on what it was.

What was the secret sauce?

Data science finally came to the rescue. (Spoiler alert - you may want to first read this article that explains what Shakespeare's innovation was, before you read further here.)

As that article says: "There’s something subconsciously off about the sound of the play, and it spooks people." Well, the data scientists found the reason (any many pundits now agree with the reason that they proposed): It was the overuse of the word "the". And it was as simple as that. Shakespeare used phrases such as "It was the owl that shrieked", instead of "It was an owl that shrieked". This deviation from the norm subconsciously signifies a deeper meaning to that owl. If your friend asks you what that noise outside was, the answer "it was a car" would be enough, while the answer "it was the car" would probably lead to further questions.

Shakespeare's innovation here (in terms of his use of the English language) qualifies as innovation in its highest possible form. Macbeth still rules supreme. Yet, the innovation is so subtly small that one could imagine that there is a possibility that Shakespeare may have done this subconsciously.

The point, however, is that when you think deep enough about what it is that you want to achieve, the likelihood that you will succeed will increase - and you may often then succeed without having to redesign large parts of the whole world. You simply just need to do what is required. And, if you create that small enhancement (that small improvement to how the universe operates) before anyone else is able to do so, you have created an innovation - and that innovation enables your success.