I have always been fascinated by the process of innovation, how someone identifies a problem, creates a solution and enables something amazing. There are 2 things I have come to realise:
- Breakthrough ideas often come from those you least expect
- Change requires engagement from everyone to be successful
The story of the keyboard highlights both of these points better than any other I know…
The QWERTY keyboard was the first layout of keyboard not because it was most efficient but because that’s how it had always been laid out on typewriters. The design had popular keys placed as far apart as possible to reduce the chance of the keys sticking. The computer keyboard didn’t suffer from the same sticky keys problem but producers continued to use the same layout that was designed for the typewriter. Change is scary and uncomfortable so why would they change?
A breakthrough in keyboard design came from an educational psychologist by the name of August Dvorak who had the simple idea to reorder the keys, the result was the Dvorak keyboard.
Figure 1: The Dvorak Keyboard [simplified US version]
The Dvorak keyboard enabled the average untrained typist to double their word count. Not being from a computer or typewriter background it was easier for him to see the problem and with no cultural and behavioural barriers to overcome, much easier to suggest a radical solution.
Why then, am I writing this blog on a QWERTY keyboard? The answer is simple, Dvorak developed his keyboard in relative isolation and wasn’t able to bring the rest of the world along with him. Without significant involvement from the ecosystem of people involved in typewriters, very little happened and an opportunity was missed.
How do you enable innovation and support change?
The answer is surprisingly simple, engage more people with the problem. The buzzword being used today is ‘crowdsourcing’ and we are seeing it everywhere from Kickstarter to Youtube, organised around industry and social change.
Using the power of the crowd increases both the number and variety of people involved and as such improves the likelihood of breakthrough innovation occurring at the same time as better enabling change to happen.
The technology to support mass collaboration is here and it is enabling ever larger groups to work together on a huge variety of problems.
The next time you are stuck trying to solve a problem, try asking someone who knows nothing about it, or even better, try asking lots of people who know nothing about it.