The Innovation Genome Project

The Innovation Genome ProjectIn Search of Real Innovation

Innovation!  If there’s one word that can get people from all walks of life excited these days, that’s the one.

CEOs. Journalists. Startup founders. Academics. Executives and managers. World leaders like Obama and Hu Jintao. And, of course, starry-eyed conference attenders all around the world.

Today there are thousands of innovation workshops, books, articles, blog posts (uhm, like this one…), podcasts, and tweets devoted to this vaguely thrilling subject.

So with all of this innovation activity going on everywhere, you’d think we’d be really, really good at it by now—brilliant, in fact.

But are we?

No, we’re not.

The uncomfortable—but surely addressable—truth about innovation today is that it’s easier to think and talk about it than it is to actually do it.

A Little More Action, a Little Less Conversation (and Cogitation)

There are four powerful forces fueling this interesting phenomenon:

1. We’re All in Thrall to the Deadly Curse of “IBNU”

First of all, let’s face it: thinking and talking about innovation is intellectually interesting and challenging, like deconstructing Gravity’s Rainbow or working your way through Stephen Hawking’s oeuvre. There are so many interlocking tropes, memes, mental models, paradigms, and buzzwords to play with that we can spend lots of pleasant time focused on things that could rightly be called “I.B.N.U.”—Interesting But Not Useful. In fact, I would say that anywhere from 80-90% of today’s “innovation content” could be categorized as IBNU.

2. Stop Treating Innovation Like It’s Frodo’s Ring

Next, all this pristinely theoretical thinking and talking about innovation has turned the word itself into a conceptual emperor without any clothes—a showy talisman that leaders feel comfortable wielding and invoking in all situations. Falling revenues? We need more INNOVATION. Falling behind the Chinese? INNOVATION. The boozy guy who runs the loading dock keeps falling asleep on the night shift? INNOVATION will wake him up! President Obama has even fallen in love with the word, which he used nine times in his latest State of the Union address. Unfortunately for the President, and the country, there’s no real sign that he knows, really, what the word means—and I write that as a dedicated Obama supporter.

3. Bom Chicka Waw-Waaaawww: Innovation Porn Addiction

Another roadblock to innovation is our obsession with innovation porn. Yes, I said porn. I know this is a family website, so I won’t draw the metaphor any more clearly than that. But let’s just say that when you’re reading about the innovation exploits of Steve Jobs!, Richard Branson!, Jeff Bezos!, or even Benjamin Franklin! and Thomas Edison!, you’re focusing on what other people have done, and not on what you, yourself, could do. Of course, this can be exciting, and you might even learn something from that kind of creative voyeurism [insert Monty Python wink here], but it’s still a basically passive occupation—you’re watching, not doing. And that’s why I think it can be useful (there’s that word again) to apply a “Yes, but what can I do with that?” lens to the innovation ideas we encounter.

4. Real Innovation Makes Burning Man Look Like a Victorian Tea Party

And finally, trying to actually do innovation—i.e., your own innovative work—is often the opposite of thinking and talking about it. It can be messy, scary, frustrating, dangerous (to your career, anyway), disruptive, political, and anxiety-producing. These negative aspects of actually trying to do innovative work are often overlooked when thinking and talking about it in the abstract, which only makes the gap between concept and reality greater. For example, in many circles innovation is treated as an unalloyed good, like oxygen or the Beatles, which should be fully embraced with no worries about potential downsides. But in the real world, where people (let’s be honest) care about things like protecting their turf, growing their set of responsibilities, and managing perceptions, something that I think could be a great innovation could look to you more like an invasion. In other words, when twenty people in a company are talking and thinking about innovation, they can all happily agree—but if those same twenty people were to then go out and just blithely “innovate,” odds are they’d be innovating all over each other.

I’m sure there are many more reasons why thinking and talking about innovation is easier, and therefore more common, than doing innovative work.

But now that I’ve cursed the darkness, it’s time to light a candle, and talk about real innovation and how we can get better at it.

The Innovation Genome Project

One way to get better at real innovation is to start moving away from all those fascinating abstract ideas on the topic, and turn instead to actual innovations, done by real innovators, to see what we can learn and use, ourselves, here and now.

That idea is the basis of the Innovation Genome Project, an Autodesk initiative where we’re studying the world’s most important 1,000 historical innovations, as a way to discover actual best practices and create tools that Autodesk employees and customers can really use to make their work more innovative.

We’re working to identify the deep patterns and commonalities of this large set of important innovations, much in the same way that the Human Genome and Music Genome projects did for the human body and the body of modern music.

The idea is to get past the warm and fuzzy anecdotes and vague generalities that dominate so much of the current innovation literature, and focus instead on capturing the actual modes of thinking that the great innovators have created and applied to their own work.

Once those thinking techniques have been identified, then the trick is to instantiate them into practical, usable tools that will work in our modern context.

The Six Innovation Questions

At this point the Innovation Genome team has reviewed 100 innovations, with another 150 planned for the second phase of the project, which will take place in the next few months. But even with a mere one-tenth of all innovations reviewed, we’ve already discovered an interesting pattern, and created our first practical innovation tool based on this insight.

The discovery is a simple, but potentially profound one: namely, that every innovation studied had at its core a number of “Innovation Questions” that enabled the conceptual breakthroughs that were essential to that innovation.

Here are the six questions that appeared most frequently in the research:

  1. What could we look at in a new way?
  2. What could we use in a new way, or for the first time?
  3. What could we move into a new context, either in time or in space?
  4. What could we connect in a new way, or for the first time?
  5. What could we change, in terms of design or performance?
  6. What could we create that is truly new?

These six innovation questions appeared in 40-60% of the innovations studied, and often appeared in roughly this order.

Here are some example of how these six innovation questions have been used for historically important innovations…

1. What could we look at in a new way?

When Benjamin Franklin (and a few others, of course) looked at the American Colonies in a new way, he saw beyond the “England vs. One of Its Colonies” view that most people had at the time, and saw a vision of a new country. The act of seeing/looking at that situation differently was a predicate for starting the process of achieving independence. Another example of looking at something in a new way as a precursor to innovation is Steve Jobs seeing computers in a completely different way from everyone else, which led of course to the Mac.

2. What could we use in a new way, or for the first time?

When fire was used in a number of new ways by primitive man, it gave him light, heat, cooked food, and a powerful new weapon. This simple re-use of something that was already occurring naturally reshaped civilization and the course of human history. Electricity is another good example of something that was already in existence, and just had to be put to use in order to become an innovation (and also a part of countless other innovations).
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3. What could we move into a new context, either in time or in space?

When the ancient Sumerians moved language from the context of spoken sounds floating through the air to marked symbols in clay and stone, they amplified its power tremendously. It was still “human language” but this move to a new “place” changed it forever. Another good example is open innovation, which “moves” the locus of innovation from “only inside the company” to “inside and outside the company.”

4. What could we connect in a new way, or for the first time?

When Thomas Edison connected the incandescent light bulb to a citywide electrical grid, he transformed it from a clever invention into a world-changing innovation. Without that seminal act of connection, the use of electric light would have spread much more slowly throughout the world, but with that connection its growth was greatly accelerated. Another example of connection as innovation is the printing press, which was created by Gutenberg through his connection of the stamp punch with the wine press.

5. What could we change, in terms of design or performance?

When Steve Jobs and Apple changed what a smart phone was with the introduction of the iPhone, it was not through the creation of anything truly new, but rather through dramatic improvements in design and performance. Jobs and Company did the same trick a few years later when they introduced the iPad. Another good example of changing design/performance to create innovation is when 3M changed a standard glue to make it “pressure-sensitive,” thus creating the now ubiquitous Post-It Note.

6. What could we create that is truly new?

When the ancient Greeks created democracy, the brought into being something genuinely new, something that had never existed before. It’s interesting to note that actually creating something completely new is one of the rarer forms of innovation, and that it’s much more common to see the look/use/move/connect/change questions being used for innovation. Another example of true creation as innovation is the airplane, conceived of by DaVinci and finally created by the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.

These are the six most powerful innovation questions—the ones we see cropping up most frequently in our first 100 innovations.

Now, the next question is, how can we move these Six Innovation Questions from the IBNU (Interesting But Not Useful) Zone, and make sure they are truly usable by real people, today.

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Here’s a straightforward way to start…

  1. Select something you’re working on right now that you think could benefit from some innovative thinking.
  2. Write that “something”–also called your “innovation target”–in the middle of a whiteboard or a piece of paper, or at the top of a text document.
  3. Ask each of the six Innovation Questions, in the order presented, about your innovation target.
  4. Brainstorm answers to each of the questions.
  5. Analyze, prioritize, and create actions for the most promising ideas.

Innovation Ideas → Innovations

The result of this kind of structured brainstorming will usually be a flood of what we call “innovation ideas”–they aren’t innovations, per se, but they are the basis for real innovations.

Once we have a robust list of targeted Innovation Ideas, most people and companies are pretty good at “taking it from there,” and finding ways to transform their ideas into real products, services, and experiences.

The challenge is usually generating those targeted innovation ideas in the first place—and using these Six Innovation Questions is one way to make sure you brainstorm the kind of ideas that are likely to lead you to real innovations.

Coda on Innovation

My own experience, and the experience of people testing this first Innovation Genome tool around the world, is that these question can lead to innovative ideas.

Which is great. But even more exciting to me is the fact that so far we’ve still only reviewed one-tenth of our 1,000 innovations. What other tools, techniques, and insights about innovation will come from the other 900? That’s the question I’m most excited about.

To me the Innovation Genome Project is a way to help us move from Innovation Thinking and Innovation Talking to Innovation Action. Meaning, making your own (and my own) work more innovative. It’s about going beyond innovation as some celestial abstraction shining in the sky, and transforming it into an energized, tough-minded, exhilarating real-world thing to do to make sure our work has as much positive impact as possible on a world that can use all the innovation it can get.

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Bill O’Connor is a member of the Corporate Strategy + Engagement team at Autodesk. He is not nearly as snarky in person as he has been at times in this article.  He can be reached at or found on twitter as @OConnorAutodesk.

Bill OConnor




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  1. JORGE O SENKOWSKI on January 10, 2012 at 1:59 am

    innovation excellence a nice handfull tool

  2. Daniel on January 10, 2012 at 4:40 am

    Bill, thanks for your inspiring article. I’m with you that we need to take more innovative action. However, I think that innovation is dependent on what we today still call “quite a big amount of good luck, serendipity, and happy coincidences” in the environment of an invention. I doubt that innovation can just be “managed and applied” by the right set of tools to innvent the right thing (of course, we still can get a lot better at it).

    From your article I get the notion that the historic research approach of the project may be focussed on successful innovation and innovators. That may make their innovations look “logical”, and the innovators’ actions may produce similarities in their work and how they looked at their areas of research.
    But what if the many unsuccessful inventors did it exactly the same way?! What makes the difference between successful innovators and unsuccessful inventors?
    Looking at the heroes only may produce a set of tools that helps some people to become successful innovators … and produce many more unsuccessful inventors.

    For the historic research, it may be worth comparing the “failures” with the heroes, and understanding the differences, not only in methodology of the actors, but also in the socio-economic environment, the legal battles of old technologies against innovators etc pp.

    Then, maybe we could better understand which market to target, which opponents to circumvent, and to launch when the time is right to become successful innovators with our inventions.

    • Ali Mahmoud on July 6, 2012 at 10:51 am

      Excellent point Daniel!

      Some of my favorite books lately are: “Start with Why”, “Little Bets”, “Think Big, Act Small”.

      If you want to study a failed innovator look at Samuel Langley who failed to invent the first flying craft. It was the Wright Brother’s passion, incremental experimentation, community support that did it. Langley has more money, more talent, more press, more everything but the Wright Brother’s believed in it more. When Langley heard about the Wright Brother’s being successful he basically said “oh well” and moved on to the next thing rather than saying “Awesome, now lets make it better”. He cared about social status more than the cause.

      I’ve read a number of quotes from the likes of Job, Branson, etc who state that unsuccessful entrepreneurs are the ones that quit too soon. Implying that if they hadn’t given up their idea would have eventually taken off. Passion/dedication is definitely at the forefront as that will fuel all of the questions mentioned in this blog.

      I think this project is trying to address the how of innovation and provide some practical steps. I certainly agree that a lot can be learned from attempted innovations. I truly hope Autodesk has the culture and courage to support its employees in acting out the findings of this project.

  3. Grant Millin on January 10, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Wow! Talk about building anticipation.

    Please drop the other shoe and update the world ASAP as to when the Innovation Genome Project goes live. I’m excited.

  4. John Wolpert on January 11, 2012 at 12:06 am

    Bill, I took a look at the name “innovation genome project” and was about to add this to my #innovationsnakeoil tag on twitter…but then I read what you have to say. Brilliant. You must be one of the reasons why Autodesk is kicking ass these days. I’ll be following you, man.

  5. Terry Wilcox, Theory of Human Excellence on January 21, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Is the Innovation Genome Project not just TRIZ revisited?

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