'My belief is there is a mirror-image of the long tail that is equally important to those wanting to understand the process of innovation. It states that the bulk of innovation behind the latest "wow" moment (multi-touch on the iPhone, for example) is also low-amplitude and takes place over a long period—but well before the "new" idea has become generally known, much less reached the tipping point.'
Much of what Buxton says chimes with points that I make about the innovation process in my book. There's a general fetishisation of the early stages of innovation, most notably ideation. Much of the hidden assumptions or mistaken beliefs around how great innovations happen focuses on the narrative of a lone inventor who, with a sudden spark of inspiration, originates an idea that takes us forwards in one great, sudden leap. Yet, as Stephen Johnson demonstrates well in his great history of innovation Where Good Ideas Come From, the best breakthroughs often come from groups of people and the collision of ideas over time, meaning that connection is one of the best ways to empower ideation.
Buxton makes the point that many breakthrough ideas (even in fast-moving sectors like technology) take a long time to gestate, bouncing around between university research teams and corporate innovation labs and so on. The mouse, for example, which we think of as a breakthrough innovation that Steve Jobs copied from Xerox PARC for the Macintosh, had actually already been around for almost twenty years by that point, and in the end took thirty years to go from original demonstration to mainstream.
I talk in the book about the need in innovation to see the trajectory, to pay attention to fundamental behaviours or needs in the context of developing technology trends, but in particular to know when it's right to jump to the next S-curve before the existing one plateaus. This might appear at once difficult and dangerous but often the signs are there if you look hard enough. As Buxton says, any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old. Whilst they might not be mature or their application fully demonstrated, the basic concept has likely been there for a good while.
The importance of understanding how to focus (and why it's important to focus) on each key stage of the innovation process (I use Schumpeter's definition as a way of expressing this) is also something I emphasise in the book. Arguably the biggest challenge with innovation comes not with ideation (most companies in my experience are not short of great ideas), but with the harvesting, application, commercialisation and scaling of those ideas. Buxton notes too, that innovation is not about alchemy or invention, but the bulk of the work and the creativity is actually in the augmentation and refinement of that idea ('The heart of the innovation process has to do with prospecting, mining, refining, and goldsmithing. Knowing how and where to look and recognizing gold when you find it is just the start. The path from staking a claim to piling up gold bars is a long and arduous one.'). We need, he says, to reorient investment and prestige to reflect this.
Amen to that.