Lone Genius?

  |   Innovation Print Friendly and PDF

The “Lone Genius” innovation myth holds that great breakthroughs come from individual geniuses working alone, equipped only with insight. Alas, that myth doesn’t stand up to examination.

The lone genius camp favors Henry Ford and Steve Jobs as prime examples. They love to quote Henry Ford saying that “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.'” There’s no proof that Ford ever said any such thing.

There’s a lot of evidence that he thought it, though. When he got it right, with the Model T for example, people loved the product and Ford loved the profit. When he got it wrong, for example, refusing to change the Model T while consumer preferences changed all around him, he almost bankrupted his company.

Lesson from Henry Ford: Lone geniuses can get it spectacularly right, but they can get it spectacularly wrong, too.

What about Steve Jobs? Didn’t he say that “You can’t ask people what they want because they don’t know what they want until they see it?” Not exactly.

Here’s what he actually said in an interview with Business Week. They asked him about whether he used consumer research when developing the iMac.

“No. We have a lot of customers, and we have a lot of research into our installed base. We also watch industry trends pretty carefully. But in the end, for something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why a lot of people at Apple get paid a lot of money, because they’re supposed to be on top of these things.”

Lesson from Steve Jobs: Lone geniuses usually aren’t so lone after all.

A lot of times, people don’t know what they want in terms of a product, but they do know what they want to do. That can be a good starting point. It was for the iPod.

In 2000, Napster was all the rage. People were downloading music to their computers and burning CDs to play it in other places. Apple’s first effort was to develop some kind of juke box program for the iMac. They licensed some software and modified it for the Mac where it became iTunes. Jobs’ role was to keep after the engineers to make iTunes simpler to use.

The iPod was the next piece of the puzzle. There were MP3 players out there, but they weren’t very good. Wired magazine described them as “either big and clunky or small and useless.” Jon Rubenstein, the lead engineer on the iPod says that no one remembers who came up with the idea but that once Jobs heard it, it became a project.

There’s one more piece to the iPod puzzle. It wasn’t a device, it was a system. There was the iTunes software that allowed a user to manage his or her digital music collection. There was the iPod itself that made all that music portable (“1000 tunes in your pocket”). And there were the iTunes store and rights agreements that made it possible for all of that management and listening to happen inexpensively and legally.

When you start digging around in the history of “lone geniuses,” you discover that they are very rare, indeed. Just about every major innovation is the product of a team, not one man or woman. Usually that team builds on the work of others.

The team that produced the iPod started with software developed at another company. They used miniaturization and battery technology developed elsewhere. The storage that made “1000 tunes in your pocket” possible was provided by an exceptionally small hard drive that the developer, Toshiba, didn’t know what to do with.

When it comes to breakthrough innovation, forget the lone genius. It takes a team. And it takes time.

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying

There are no comments yet, why not be the first to leave a comment?