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“Every innovation – even if it is patented or published in a peer-reviewed journal by one person – is the result of a community effort to solve a problem”

Patrick J. Howie is the author of The Evolution of Revolutions

Interview by Kelsey Meyer of The League of Innovators

Patrick J. Howie has spent two decades studying the social process of innovation as an economist, head of product development for a venture capital–backed start-up, and creator of the social prediction website ABetterGuess.com. His work has been cited and published in numerous publications, including Forbes, Fortune, Business Week, and the Wall Street Journal. Howie holds a patent for the Unique Method and System of Analyzing the Effectiveness of Marketing Strategies.

Howie, a leading researcher in the field of product development and marketing effectiveness, says that we need to take the “expert” out of “expertise” and find an objective measure of an individual’s ability to predict the next revolution. Howie argues that the best predictions come from combining the power of two prediction trends, crowd wisdom and the expert opinion, to identify the voice of the “leading edge.”  The practical model of this theory developed by Howie is www.ABetterGuess.com, a social prediction website based on an algorithm he developed. ABetterGuess.com calculates the probability that a specific individual can accurately predict a sequence of future events by answering a few questions. Transforming our understanding and value of knowledge can change multiple facets of industry, academia, and our day-to-day lives.

Howie’s most recent venture is his book THE EVOLUTION OF REVOLUTIONS:: How We Create, Shape, and React to Change (Prometheus Books, February 22, 2011) where he uses the theory of relativity, the world wide web, and the Democratic Revolution as three main examples of revolutions to describe this evolution.

A Better Guess

ABetterGuess.com is an amazing concept.  Can you explain how exactly this works, and how it relates to your theory in THE EVOLUTION OF REVOLUTIONS?

A look at dozens of revolutions clearly highlights that every step in the process – from the initial innovation through the revolution – is a social process, and that future revolutions can be identified if we just talk to the right people.  The right people are not those who led the last revolution and it isn’t simply talking to everyone. This means it is talking to that subset that truly understands the current problem, what is wrong with the current solution, and why others don’t see the problem.  ABetterGuess.com leverages innovations in psychology and statistics to identify this subset of individuals, thus enabling us to get a glimpse of what the future will look like today.

What do you think are some common misconceptions about innovation and revolution?

There are numerous misconceptions about innovation and how innovations create revolutions.  First of all, it is common to think that most innovations are the work of one person, with the innovation represented by the proverbial “aha” moment.  This is simply our desire to personalize a story; every innovation – even if it is patented or published in a peer-reviewed journal by one person – is the result of a community effort to solve a problem.

Another common misconception is that the most dramatic revolutions are the result of the most difficult innovations.  The impact of an innovation, that is the magnitude of the revolution that the innovation inspires, has nothing to do with the difficulty of the problem being solved.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize that all new products, services, and ideas do not come out perfect, and the true value to society of an innovation comes from the continual refinement and expansion of the original innovation, not from the original innovation itself.  Let’s use the automobile as an example:  the first automobile was no better than a horse, it didn’t go any further or faster and it broke down much more frequently. That is, the first automobile provided little, if any, value. But the hundreds of refinements to every aspect of the automobile have created a product that is dramatically better than the horse.  This is a hallmark of a true revolution, continuous and numerous innovations, not one single great leap forward.

People can be innovative in every aspect of their lives.  Can you briefly explain your understanding of the innovation process?

Innovation requires a minimum amount of expertise and a willingness to be open to new ideas.  We are all experts in our own jobs, no matter how big or small, and we all have the capability to innovate and improve what we do.  But we don’t really do it alone, we do it as part of a group by interacting with others with similar jobs, with our customers, and even with people in very different fields that help us think about our world a little differently.  The process of innovation is the same regardless of what we do or who we are, and understanding this process can help people become much more innovative.

The first step in the process, which is by far the most difficult most of the time, is Problem Identification.  The key to innovation, quite simply, is to understand what the need is.  If we don’t understand the problem, then we will not be able to solve it.  This is the most difficult because it is usually very hard to separate the disease – the true problem – from symptoms.  For example, a drop slowdown in sales is the most obvious “problem” that businessmen face, but this is merely a symptom.  Identifying the source of the problem – is it the product? The sale force? Marketing? – Is very difficult, but is critical to properly figuring out where to exert your energy.

The second step in the process is Germination.  This is the period where numerous possible solutions are explored.  Importantly, this is an inherently community event.  And I don’t mean through the use of traditional brainstorming exercises, which are actually worthless when solving meaningful problems.  During this period the community is pooling their combined knowledge and experience to identify and explore as many possible solutions with the hope that one or more will eventually prove to be successful.  The most difficult part of this stage is that it is nearly impossible to determine how long it will take, there are numerous examples throughout history where a community thought they were close to solve a problem only for it to take dramatically longer than expected.

The final stage is Re-conceptualization.  This is the “aha” moment, although it is rarely an “aha” at the time but just another exploration of one possible solution.  The key to this step is that it requires the innovator to alter his view of the information at his disposal.  This is best described by those classic perception puzzles where the same picture can be “show” more than one image, such as the old woman and the young woman of the vase and the two faces.  The re-conceptualization occurs when you finally see the data in a different way; this is when the innovation occurs.

This re-conceptualization that occurs in the innovation process poses quite a challenge when you want to get others to adopt your new product or idea.  In order to get your customers to adopt, they will have to go through the same re-conceptualization as the innovator.  That is, they need to be able to see how the old woman becomes the young woman, which isn’t always easy.

What motivated you to take your research and insight and form it into this book?

I was working with a start-up company that was struggling to effect change both within their organization and with their customers.  The result was a lot of finger pointing and blame.  I was asked to give a presentation at a management offsite and it dawned on me that what they were experiencing was the normal process of trying to create a revolution.  I put their problems in context by showing that what they were experiencing was no different than what was experienced by any revolution, be it in science, politics, or business.  The presentation was exceptionally well received and helped the organization take control of their own revolution and inspired me to try to help others understand the revolutionary process.

You have been quoted in saying that we need to take the “expert” out of “expertise” can you explain this further?

Our society, just like all others, tends to idolize experts and to look to them for insight into the future.  The problem with this approach is that by the time the expert is crowned, the seeds of the next revolution are already underway and the expert is almost certainly not a part of it.  So-called experts have historically not been great at identifying the next revolution, because their expertise is in the current revolution.  That is, the experts of today are really experts of yesterday.  Using experts to predict the future is like driving a car using the rear-view mirror, this can work as long as the road is straight, which it rarely is.

You have had a unique background working as an economist, head of product-development for a venture capital-backed startup, and creator of a website.  How do you think your experience in each of these fields prepared you for the task of writing this book?

The Evolution of Revolutions is about understanding how change spreads throughout a society.  My experiences have enabled me to look at this problem from numerous angles over the past two decades, affording me a unique view of this process.  As an economist, my job was to predict how the future would look based on current trends.  As head of product development, I needed to go beyond prediction to actually producing products that met the needs of the future.  Working in the venture capital world provided me with insight into how others try to place their bets on what the future would look like.  Finally, I created ABetterGuess.com to provide a quantitative approach to prediction that didn’t just listen to the crowd, which frequently becomes a herd, and that doesn’t just use so-called experts.   I think we all have a book (or two) in us, this is the book that I was destined to write.


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