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Communications of the ACM

The profession of IT

Why Our Theories of Innovation Fail Us

Why Our Theories of Innovation Fail Us, illustration

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Only 1 in 500 patents makes its inventor money, and businesses are awash in great ideas of dubious market value (only about 4% make money).1 So why do people think innovation begins with a creative idea, is sold through an imaginative story, and diffuses through society because of novelty and merit? Innovators mobilize people to adopt ideas. Although they might start with idea creation, innovators focus mostly on other aspects: market offers, market testing, beta prototyping, production, sales, and customer-support infrastructures that companies use to get products adopted. In fact, 90% of innovation is in fostering adoption.1,4 Ideas are often stories invented after the fact to explain innovations that already emerged, as with the iPhone example discussed later in this column.

Yet the media telling of the story makes it sound as if ideation—the creation of ideas—is 90% of the work of innovation. Ideation has produced many inventions that never became innovations because no one adopted them. Many people are misled by stories that inaccurately equate innovation with invention. People who believe these stories put too little effort into adoption and are disappointed by their low success rates.1,5


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