Let No Light Bulb Appear: Innovation’s Best When It’s Invisible

Mar 31, 2014
10 Min Read

We techies and early adopters – in whatever field – have a tendency to love the technology that enables us. And we show that enthusiasm by featuring the innovation front-and-center, and letting the bare metal show. But recently, I was reminded that an innovation has “made it” only when you don’t actually see it in the products it enables.

In February, for the third year in a row, I attended the Arts & Crafts conference in Asheville, NC. No, this conference isn’t about cute things you can do with paper maché; it’s for people who are serious about the architecture, furniture, and crafts of the early 1900s. (Think Tiffany lamps, handmade embroidery, and the Gamble House.) One inspiring highlight of my trip was a marvelous conference session about the design of metal lamps in the early 20th century, “The Evolution of Arts & Crafts Lighting,” given by David Kornacki, who’s a specialist in Roycroft copper lamps.

Kornacki showed hundreds of photos of early Arts & Crafts lamps, plenty of which were worthy of an “Oooh, pretty!”

But slowly it became obvious to me that one element (so to speak) in the lamps’ design evolution – and their growing popularity – was the move to electricity. As more homes became electrified, the presenter pointed out, people were motivated to get rid of their oil lamps and to buy newfangled electric ones.

Which got me thinking: We’re most motivated to make changes in our tools and our business processes when we change an underlying technology (by willing choice or circumstance). A techie would point out that we’re most apt to upgrade our computer operating systems when we buy a new computer. When people decide that the cloud is a good solution for business problems (such as backing up data and supporting a mobile workforce), they’re open to jettisoning the desktop tools they’ve relied on for years.

It’s not just a “technology,” issue. Anytime we make a process change, we consider the usefulness of our existing setup. For example, judging by the number of sales flyers I received when I moved into a new house, people are far more likely to buy new furniture after they move.

Most of us are held back by inertia. It’s not that we think there aren’t better options than the ones we’re using; it’s that we’re too busy using the bird-in-hand to look for an alternative. Yet, once we decide to rustle around in the bushes for another bird or two, we’ll consider anything – including entirely different species of birds.

But the timing for our openness to change was only one of my realizations. The other light-bulb-moment was this: In all the lamps Kornacki displayed in his 45-minute slide-show, the light bulb never showed. Lamp design changed as a result of the oil-to-electric adoption, but the bulbs themselves were hidden from view.

We early adopters are rather proud of the bare metal (for years, it was a mark of geeky pride that none of my computers had the covers installed). We love technology, so we put it front-and-center. But, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that people buy (or buy into) solutions to problems, including (or especially) problems they didn’t know they had.

Then and now, few light bulbs are themselves attractive. It’s the light we want, not the bulb.

In other words: New technology succeeds best when it’s invisible. It wasn’t electricity that the lamp designers were selling, even if that was what motivated the customer to buy. It was attractive new lamp designs that just-so-happened to take advantage of the new technology. Roycroft and other manufacturers did keep selling oil lamps for quite a while; I think Kornacki mentioned that oil lamps were listed in catalogs until 1914 or so (but don’t hold me to that date). However, the interest in Arts & Crafts sensibilities, coupled with new technology, let the designers change shapes, construction methods, and so on. They could do cool new things with the removal of limitations forced upon them by designing for oil. Even if the technology migration was important, it was the design – and their functional benefits – that customers bought.

You know this already – at least logically. But it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that innovations aren’t what makes people adopt new stuff. It’s the offer of a new solution to a problem. The iPod had plenty of technological innovations, but what people bought was “a thousand songs in your pocket.”

That’s the kind of message that marketing people are trained to look for. But we – as techies, project managers, and innovators in projects that aim to change the world – sometimes need to remind ourselves to build the lamp, not the light bulb.

Even then – speaking of what could be done with light bulbs – sometimes we do guess wrong. The Writer’s Almanac reported on March 23 that the first private screening of a motion picture took place in Paris on this date in 1895. Auguste and Louis Lumière had been inspired by Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope (a peephole machine that pulled a strip of film in front of a light source; to the viewer, the images on the film seemed to move). The Lumière brothers created a device to project the images on a screen so that more than one person could view them at a time. They showed their 46-second film at a conference of the Society for the Development of the National Industry, whose purpose was to discuss the latest industry developments; the Lumière brothers were there to present advances they had made in color photography.

To the Lumières' great surprise, however, the audience was much more interested in the moving black-and-white images than they were in any color photographs. Word spread rapidly, and they held more screenings and shot more short films, which they debuted before a paying public audience for the first time the following December. But despite all the buzz around their short films, the Lumières viewed motion pictures as nothing more than a fad. They said, "The cinema is an invention without any future."

See: We all make poor predictions sometimes!

So when you build innovation into your projects – whether it’s a revolutionary new idea or just the flick of a light bulb – consider carefully how to build it into the project.

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