When innovation is a losing game

Three dots to connect...

This quote came up in my Readwise feed from War, by Ian Morris about the game theory of innovation:

Like fight and flight in the dove-and-hawk game, innovation and conservatism both have costs and benefits. Innovators pay a price: it takes time to learn to make new arrowheads and to use them properly (costing, let us say, 10 points), and—perhaps more seriously—going against the way things have always been done might lose them respect (–20 points). Other men might not want to cooperate on hunts with someone so quirky, in which case the goatish inventor might actually end up with less meat, despite having better technology (another –10 points). In the end, he might just let the whole thing drop.

The dove-and-hawk-game is a conflict model. It is interesting that a model of conflict maps so easily onto what we can think of as an introducing-innovations-to-organisations model. Innovators have to fight to get their ideas accepted, they just don’t always appreciate how important that fight will be.

Innovators are often driven by zeal and a love of the new. They find it hard to understand why everyone doesn’t get on board with their new ideas, but that doesn’t stop them from losing the long game.

Machiavelli said the same something similar to Morris:

“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack, they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.”

The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli

Pioneers with arrows in their back, as the corporate folklore motto warns those among us who would dare to dream of better things.

It connects with something I read yesterday in the FT, a professor quoted in Andrew Hill’s useful analysis/speculation about the demise of slipper innovators and prolific ad re-targeters, Mahabis

“the financials of fast-growing companies look almost the same as the financials of failed companies”.

Could we apply the same principle to the success of innovators? As in the career trajectories of innovator executives can look almost the same as failing executives. Teetering on the brink until the moment they win — or lose.

Innovators – and I count myself as often have been among them in my career – huddle in groups – friends, conferences, Facebook groups – and warm themselves around the glow of stories of titans of innovation laying waste to the old certainties and inefficiencies of industries, lauded as mavericks and visionaries as they variously re-shape industries and put dings in universes.

Innovation is a high stakes game, and we rarely hear from those who played it and lost, just those who eventually won.

Image: A Japanese flintlock from the British Museum Flickr account (cc).