In 1916, Henry Ford in an interview with the Chicago Tribune said that ‘History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.’
Students of history learn about cause and effect. Although Ford had the belief that he was the creator of a new world, he was in denial about the causes of his break with tradition and the ground-breaking step change this brought. The industrial revolution took manufacturing production from small workshops to automated processes almost 100 years before. Adam Smith wrote in ‘The Wealth of Nations’ 1776 about the division of Labour in the making of pins:
‘the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some factories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them.’
Achieving further levels of excellence is always built upon the achievements of the past. The ideas don’t just spring out of thin air and will never be truly unique even if our egos would like to believe this.
This doesn’t mean that innovation has to be evolutionary. Ford saw tradition as a major inhibition that would prevent progress. So where does innovation come from? Who knows? It’s there if you look hard enough for it. We really have to create the conditions such that innovation can thrive. Even then, we have to be open enough so that we recognise a good idea when we see it. How often do you hear people say, ‘I thought of that.’ The difference between successful innovators and the rest is that not only did they recognise what might take their organisation forward but like Henry Ford, they did something about it.