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  • Writer's pictureTodd Gentzel

Innovation, Transformation and the Irrepressible Spinning Jenny

It’s easy to think that we live in unprecedented times, and to some extent that’s probably true. Still, it’s worth remembering that technology-driven transformation isn’t new, and there are important lessons from the past that can inform our progress into the future.

Over the next few months, we’ll be exploring pivotal events and the people who shaped the modern world. We’ll be considering how their experiences illustrate important lessons that can be learned and leveraged as we seek to innovate and thrive in the high-velocity environments within which we live and work.

Now let’s go back to the latter half of the 18th century. It was a period of revolution. The Enlightenment was in full swing. Science, technology, political philosophy - it was all open for discussion, and seemingly everything was changing. In so many ways, this period would serve as a foundation for the world to come.

While the precise date is unclear, we know that sometime in 1764 or 1765, James Hargreaves had an idea that would play a significant role in modernizing the textile industry and fueling the early industrial revolution. At the time, demand for cotton clothing was rapidly increasing, and domestic production of suitable threads and yarns was limited to a technique developed in the late middle ages.

Hargreaves lacked formal education, but he was a man with the knowledge and skills necessary to bring his idea to fruition. Ultimately, he would create a functioning machine capable of eight times the production of an individual spinner using the traditional method. His one machine quickly became many. The locals were so threatened by his invention and its potential to disrupt their livelihoods, they broke into his home, destroyed all of his Spinning Engines (Jennies) and forced him to leave town.

Undeterred, he relocated his family and continued producing his new invention, inspiring a series of subsequent advances that would transform the textile industry and play a prominent role in one of the greatest periods of innovation in human history.

But it turns out that Hargreaves wasn’t alone. There were a number of people experimenting with solutions. Not long after Hargreaves invented his Spinning Jenny, Richard Arkwright introduced the Water Frame, a spinning machine that was powered by a water wheel. These technologies, along with several others that improved on their designs, grew in prominence over the course of the next 15 years until Samuel Compton combined the two concepts in the form of his Spinning Mule, which rendered the previous generation of machines obsolete.

The Not-So-Unlikely People Who Started a Revolution

So who were these people? They were carpenters, clock-makers, mill operators and even performing artists. Each brought a unique set of skills and experience to the task. They were informed and at times, limited by their experience, and their inventions unmistakably speak to the individuals who created them.

Just as it was then, there is no singular profile that describes what’s required to be an innovator. Of course, some skills are more relevant than others, but that’s not the most important factor. Goethe said it best, ‘To create something, you must be something.’ If you want to innovate, focus first on mastering your craft, developing your skills and cultivating a life that includes the broadest possible range of experiences. Ask great questions. Commit yourself to a lifetime of learning and always choose courage over complacency.

Innovation doesn’t belong to some special group of gifted individuals, and you won’t buy your way in with an online certificate in human-centered design. Being an innovator requires significant ‘time on tools’ - real-life experience and everything that comes with it.

Who you are, where you came from and what you’ve done all factor into what you’re willing to consider and capable of delivering. All of it influences the nature and the quality of the questions you ask, and prepares you for those critical moments when preparation meets opportunity.

Scarcity, Competition and the Growth of an Industry

The conditions in the mid-eighteenth century were favorable for disruption. There was a critical scarcity that had been created by a combination of tariffs and the introduction of more efficient looms following John Kay’s invention of the flying shuttle earlier in the century. The time was right for innovation, and Hargreaves and others recognized the opportunity. As the technologies improved and proliferated, the increased scale raised the ceiling for the industry and prompted a period of growth. Scarcity was, and still is, a powerful catalyst for innovation.

Consider the demand for microchips today. New technologies and use cases dramatically increase demand for more and better chipsets. In the healthcare industry, caregiver scarcity has given rise to unsustainable costs and an inability to meet the growing demand for clinical access; and in the clean energy space the increasing need for rare earth minerals and critical resources has created insatiable demand, putting a strain on global supply. These scarcities represent opportunities for innovators, and serve as a catalyst for transformative ideas and technologies.

It’s important to remember that scarcity creates risks and risks open the door for opportunity. When the perceived risk of doing nothing is higher than the risk of adopting new ways of working, innovation thrives. For innovators, scarcity represents a chance to capitalize on a favorable context for the commercialization and adoption of relevant new technologies. They pay close attention to how constraints impact consumers, producers, sellers and service providers, and they monitor the economic, legislative and regulatory environment and its impact on markets.

Scarcity isn’t new. It’s been with us since the beginning. In many ways, it’s the story of human progress - the fuel that propels us into the future. And while scarcity can play an important role in creating a favorable environment for innovation. It’s just a jumping-off point. The real work of industry-, market- and business-level transformation involves meeting the needs of complex networks of stakeholders and their interests.

Perseverance and the Pursuit of Resilience

Innovation and transformation are closely linked, and the work associated with both isn’t for the faint of heart. That was especially true in the 18th century when the villagers had a penchant for breaking into your house and destroying everything. Each of the innovators we’ve discussed experienced profound levels of resistance and somehow persevered. Thankfully, labor riots are far less frequent today, but the transformational work of innovation is still precarious business.

Good questions expect to illuminate, but great questions challenge convention and create the conditions for progress. They also tend to disrupt the status quo, and that’s usually where the trouble begins.

Innovation, by its very nature, starts with an idea that challenges existing practice. Whatever a norm might be, it was developed, introduced, embedded and cultivated over time. A social contract is in place that ensures its perpetuation, and in some cases, it can even be enshrined in official policies and industry standards. Whether by passive or active means, the status quo is being maintained, and a challenge to that can generate significant resistance.

In an effort to navigate these challenges, innovators should bring humility, empathy and self-reflectivity to their work. The idea of the genius maverick sells well at the airport bookstore, but in the real world it usually increases risk and creates more resistance.

Pushback is to be expected. You’re engaging in the messy work of transformation, so don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. Resilience describes your ability to navigate criticism, experience setbacks and still find a productive way forward. Rather than engage in unproductive disputes, invite your stakeholders into the design process, listen to your detractors, learn from your competitors and when it makes sense, you might even consider collaborating with them to further the interests of the industry as a whole.

A Few Final Thoughts

James Hargreaves never set out to change the world. He recognized an opportunity and took advantage of the unique market conditions that existed at the time. He had no way of knowing the profound impact that he and his fellow innovators would have in the years that followed.

Today, we find ourselves at a similar juncture, with favorable conditions and the foundational technologies in place to create an unprecedented era of innovation. The combination of critical scarcities and exponential technologies like artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and quantum computing presents a potent environment for accelerating innovation and producing substantive breakthroughs across virtually every sector of the economy.

Things will move fast, with windows of opportunity opening and closing much more swiftly than we’ve come to expect. The moment calls for innovation on a scale we haven’t seen - a scale that will require many more skilled innovators and transformation experts.

The pervasive nature of change that’s coming will put strain on a system that has enjoyed a several decades-long period of relative stability. Smart companies will spend the coming years developing the talent, resilience and capacity for transformation required to compete in high-velocity environments.

Todd Gentzel is a Partner at BigBend Co. and an expert in strategic foresight, design futures and product development. He’s worked extensively in the healthcare, energy and aviation sectors and holds the Oxford University | HEC Paris Masters of Science in Consulting for Change.

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