Innovation Is Stupid

By Kevin Ashton

Amazon, eBay and Google were all dumb ideas.


Congratulations to this year’s RFID Journal Award winners—Minera Norge, the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center and Colombia’s Almacafé—for their successful uses of RFID. When I hear great stories like theirs, I often wonder about the moment the innovation was conceived. Most conversations about new ideas, I suspect, go something like this:

Innovator (nervously): “I have this idea. It may sound a little crazy, but I think maybe we could [insert innovative idea here].”

Coworkers (laughing): “You want to do what? That’s crazy.”

Skeptic One: “That will never work. It’s already been tried, and it’s impossible because [major objection here, probably citing immutable laws of physics].”

Skeptic Two: “Even if it could work, no one would want it because [another major objection here, something to do with the way things have always been done around here].”

Skeptic Three: “Anyway, if it’s such a good idea [insert name of some other, probably larger, company here] would have done it already.”

Coworkers (nodding and laughing again): “So we all agree, it’s a stupid idea.”

Innovator (sadly): “I said it might sound a little crazy.”

Every once in a while, though, an innovative idea gets the green light and, ultimately, succeeds. And when it does, nobody except the innovator remembers this initial conversation. By then, everyone else—especially Skeptics One, Two and Three—has totally re-imagined it. Each individual clearly recalls suggesting the brilliant idea personally, or the group coming up with it in unison, or it being an obvious approach all along. Success has many fathers. Failure is your fault.

Innovation is stupid—or at least it always sounds that way at first. Consider these stupid ideas: the world’s first Internet bookstore (who on Earth would go to a bookstore that sells only books about the Internet?); a search engine with a simple interface (everyone knows search engines must be information-rich portals and no one wants an alternative to Yahoo!); and a way to buy secondhand stuff from strangers via Internet auctions (why would anyone trust people they’ve never even met to buy or sell merchandise online?).

If innovative ideas didn’t seem stupid, they would have been tried already. The opposite is also true. If an idea seems good the first time you or someone you know suggests it, it’s likely to have been done before and unlikely to be innovative. (It may still be good—it just won’t be new.)

The award winners overcame the three impediments to innovation. The first is courage. It takes a brave soul to stand up and suggest something that seems dumb. The second is skepticism. It’s a little-known fact that the very best ideas seem stupid at the start, so most of us never look beyond our first reaction. The third impediment to innovation is the toughest.

Not all stupid ideas are innovative—most of them really are stupid. The trick is figuring out which ones are which.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center. Illustration by John Hull.