Innovation Incrementalism

Day 44 Week 7 Q1  Monday, February 13, 2023

Innovation usually comes a little at a time, not as major breakthroughs that change the world, even though it sometimes feels this way. Our experience of the creative process is extremely nonlinear. In fact, sometimes, it feels downright tedious. You do not have breakthroughs every day or even every week. One of the reasons I changed my focus from physics to engineering was simply patience. Physicists take a very long time to find out if they are right if they ever find out. It can take decades for science to progress, but engineering can take months or years to bear fruit. It was incredibly frustrating as an improvising musician steered into science and technology to have to change my time scales from seconds to days, months, years and decades.  In music, when you improvise, you immediately get feedback from external reality in less than a second. In a year that has 365 days, there are 31,536,000 seconds! That means one thirty millionth of the amount of feedback!

Creative outliers come in all shapes, sizes and attention spans.  Do you know how some dogs weigh over a hundred pounds and some under a pound and seem like completely different animals? Then take a physicist and a jazz musician, where the feedback rate ranges from over 30 million times per year to once per year. This makes the range of human psyches three hundred thousand times greater than the size of dogs, and you wonder why we are not apparently all the same.

Hey, this is not to say that physics and jazz have nothing in common, as they are my two favorite subjects, and studying acoustics at MIT and composition at Julliard has a lot in common. Still, when you are performing jazz in front of an audience, that is another story entirely. 

All of these processes are still incremental; it is just that some get feedback a lot sooner than others. Imagine a car with 100 horsepower and another with 3 billion horsepower. They could not even drive on the same road or maybe even the same planet. This is one of the reasons it is hard for people to understand each other. When you consider that we all have multiple modes of operating and being in the world, which are not always easy to discern by an outsider, there is much room for misunderstanding.

Still, the creative process which feeds innovation is always incremental. There are not only a lot of steps but a lot of feedback to integrate. When you expose your not quite manifested insight to the uninitiated, do not be surprised if they have no idea what you are talking about. Remember, incrementalism is on the critical path to invention and also to understanding, and not everyone has the same amount of patience or attention span.

Try to remember innovation is incremental.