I’m currently about 2/3rds of the way through Walter Isaacson’s latest book, The Innovators, an ambitious project to chart the history of what I guess one would call the world of “digital” – computing, programming and devices. From Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage coming up with the ideas of a multiple-purpose reprogrammable computing device, to the valve-driven analogue and digital computers of World War Two, through the invention of the transistor, microprocessor, mini- and personal computers, the Web and beyond, it’s a story well told.
There have been a few observations that I have made along the way. The first is a bit parochial – I hadn’t really understood the significance of the National Physical Laboratory on my doorstep in Teddington has had in the evolution of modern technology. In popular British culture the NPL is probably best known (if at all) for the work that Barnes Wallis did there on developing the bouncing bomb. But Teddington was not only home to Alan Turing after the war, but also where Donald Davies coined the term “Packet switching“, a cornerstone concept of the Internet. The NPL is a very significant place in the history of computing, not just in the UK but for the whole world. Funnily enough, it was also a place I was able to visit for the first time earlier this week.
The much broader idea from Isaacson’s book, though, is that for all that we talk about innovators as individuals (you know, the pub quiz stuff of “Who invented?”), very few innovations come from the minds of an individual – much more they are born of teams of people who worked together, and disparate folk who happened to have similar ideas at similar times. Take television, for example (not one covered in the book): in the UK most folk would hedge a bet of John Logie Baird as the inventor of TV. However, the mechanical device that Baird created was far from the cathode ray tube-based devices that TV became.
The narrative that we like to have about innovation and invention is often focused around individual genius – but the reality is much, much more collaborative. What Isaacson does is to piece together this more complicated narrative. When we are looking at how to innovate within our organisations, what should become completely clear is that teams, not lone geniuses, should be the key.