History Lessons for Innovators [video]– Valutrics

by Scott Bowden

One of the most overused phrases concerning history is the philosopher George Santayana’s dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Indeed, this phrase often appears anytime a writer tries to link a modern phenomenon to history.

I spend a great deal of time thinking about what I term as “historical innovation,” which is the concept that one can improve the efficacy of modern innovation programs by studying examples of how people solved problems in the past and applying those techniques to the challenges faced by current students of innovation.

For example, the way Romans built water channeling systems two-thousand years ago to capture water in a desert climate provides a thought process that a modern innovator can use to improve a current business process.  I was naturally intrigued when I read a recent editorial by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal that examines how Americans can learn the lessons of history to improve their country today.  Noonan derives these lessons by studying the latest book by the eminent historian David McCullough, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.

My approach to this topic will be to take these lessons and examine how they can be used to benefit the modern student of innovation.

It is a story

The first lesson from history that Noonan cites from McCullough reminds us of the importance of telling stories with history.  For societies without a written language, history is often passed down from generation to generation through the use of oral storytelling. Indeed, some of the best-known anecdotes from American history come to us in the form of stories, however apocryphal, such as George Washington cutting down a cherry tree and pledging not to be able to tell a lie when confronted about the incident.  Many more people are likely to recall this story than to recall the details of Washington’s Farewell Address to the country.

A story can enhance the historical experience, McCullough notes, in ways that mere facts cannot match. This concept of storytelling is valuable for the modern innovator in terms of how it can enhance the educational process as part of an innovation effort.  The innovator should consider leveraging storytelling to relay information to colleagues or participants in an innovation session as a way to increase retention of certain concepts or to provide additional emphasis on a particularly important topic.

For example, simply relaying facts about the number and name of fonts in the original Macintosh computer is less meaningful and memorable than the story about how Steve Jobs studied calligraphy in college and used that experience to arrive at his innovative use of fonts in the computer he developed.  Stories are powerful tools in the arsenal of human learning, and the innovator should not hesitate to use them in his or her work.

What past to us was the present to them

McCullough gives this example as a way of reminding students of history that the famous participants in a narrative, such as Adams, Jefferson, and Washington, did not walk around thinking about how they were living in “the past.”  Rather, they were living in the present and facing a series of key challenges requiring important decisions along the way.  Although the obstacles faced by the modern innovator are by no means as impactful as those surrounding the war for American independence and birth of a new nation, the innovator should think about processes that the Founders went through as they navigated these tumultuous times.

An example of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 is instructive on this front.  The Founders who spent their summer in the hot, humid city of Philadelphia operated in an environment that was challenging to say the least.  For fear of leaks reaching the press (there were 12 newspapers published in the city at that time), the participants in the convention kept the doors and windows closed and the shades drawn throughout the process, even though that meant uncomfortable conditions for their workplace.  Sleep was a challenge for the participants in the warm evenings in the city, as they could not leave their windows open because of the omnipresent insects pestering them.  In the sessions, heated arguments persisted between small states and large states, and between those favoring a strong central government versus those favoring a decentralized locus of power.

Today we think of the output of those sessions as a single document that changed the country and the world forever (the Constitution), but we forget that it was arrived at through a process of stops and starts by living, breathing individuals interacting in a challenging environment.  For the modern innovator, this can serve as a point of solace when we are working in a windowless (but likely air-conditioned conference room) to meet a deadline on an innovation project.

They were never certain of success

We often forget that American independence was not a sure thing.  McCullough notes that the country at the time was divided in terms of outlook, with about one-third in favor of independence, one-third favoring staying with Britain, and one-third waiting to see who comes out on top before professing fealty to the victor. Looking back at history, we see the American experiment as inevitable, but it was certainly in doubt throughout the process.

For the innovator, we suffer from the same conceit in that we spend a lot of time looking at innovative products from the past from the standpoint of the final, successful output rather than seeing the trials and tribulations that occurred along the way.  This focus solely on the end product can frustrate the innovator who in the course of one’s career will spend the vast majority of his or her time operating in the trials and tribulation phase of innovation rather than basking in the glow of a successful end product.

Nothing had to happen the way it happened

McCullough cites this aphorism as common sense to most observers but nonetheless an important lesson for a student of history.  Looking back at events we see a linear progression from step one to step two and beyond.  However, each of those steps required a specific decision to be made as well as a series of related and unrelated events to occur to ensure the final outcome.  Decisions and events in the process were of critical importance, but we sometimes focus so much on the outcome that we neglect these decisions and events.

For the innovator, this serves as a reminder of the critical nature of the process of arriving at an innovation, not just the outcome itself.  Indeed, it is important not only to think carefully before making each decision in a process but also to document those decisions so that if the innovator arrives at an outcome that is suboptimal, he or she can retrace the process and determine which step might have sent the project off in the wrong direction.

We make more of the wicked than the great

In this example, McCullough laments the tendency in history to focus on individuals who had a negative impact on events more so than positive.  He cites the voluminous works written on Senator Joseph McCarthy but the lack of writings on the first Senator who opposed him, Margaret Chase Smith.  For the innovator, this phenomenon can manifest itself in terms of a tremendous focus on solving a big, glaring problem or challenge faced by an organization.  While this problem may be extremely important to solve and reap great financial rewards, it may also be the most difficult to solve and take years and years of work to overcome.

In a quarterly results-driven economy, the innovator may not have the luxury of years of investment to solve that problem.  Rather than focusing exclusively on something that is a major problem, the innovator should also keep in his or her portfolio a set of smaller problems to solve to maintain momentum in an innovation program.

America came far through trial and error

At the heart of the American experiment is the importance of the notion of trial and error as a means of advancing progress and knowledge. McCullough cites the example of Johnstown, Pennsylvania steelworkers in the 19th century who spent months building a new machine to produce steel and were ready to make adjustments ever before they hit the “start” button, stating “let’s start it up and see why it doesn’t work.”  That statement, at first glance, may not seem like much but it embodies two attributes that are of critical importance to the innovator.

First, it reminds us that there is a method to creation of a new solution through the process of trial and error.  Experimentation is validated in the anecdote.  Second, it demonstrates an inherent optimism that no matter what happens at the start of the new machine, the workers would spend their time focusing on how to fix it rather than lamenting the large amounts of time they invested in its creation.  Both these attributes, trial and error and inherent optimism, are crucial to the success of the modern innovator.

History is the antidote to the hubris of the present

McCullough in this lesson is focusing on how we often look through the lens of history at past actions and judge those actions harshly without taking into consideration the circumstances in which those in the past were operating.  Just as we judge the past harshly, McCullough notes, so, too, will those who follow us wonder what we were thinking in terms of how we handled the events of our present.  McCullough’s advice is to withhold this act of judgment and to think about the circumstances of the past.

For the innovator, this advice can be construed to mean that we should not dismiss as simplistic examples of how people solved problems or developed innovations in the past.  Indeed, a simple solution developed 2,000 years ago, when applied in the right way, could solve a complex problem in the modern era.  This is the root of historical innovation.  While the actual historical innovation itself may not per se solve the problem, the general concept of the innovation, or the process that the ancient innovator followed to arrive at the solution, may be of value to the modern world.

Knowing history will make you a better person

In this final lesson, McCullough relays the importance of history as a means of providing examples of behaviors in the past worth emulating by those of us in the present. History is replete with examples of individuals sacrificing their own self-interest in pursuit of a larger goal, and we sometimes forget the importance of altruism in the fast-paced society in which we live. McCullough cites the example of John Adams, who said that “[w]e can’t guarantee success [in the Revolutionary War], but we can do something better […w]e can deserve it.”

This introduces the concept of virtue, which is rarely present in innovation discussions.  We tend to focus on new innovative products that will result in millions of dollars of new revenue for a company or process improvements that will result in millions of dollars of cost reductions. We do not necessarily think about higher goals for our innovation work, but we should keep these in mind as we pursue our daily innovation challenges.


As I spent time thinking about lessons from history for innovators, I unexpectedly stumbled upon an older TED Talk about Leadership in which one of the speakers articulated a vision on leadership that succinctly tied together the various threads of thought permeating my analysis of the lessons from history by Noonan and McCullough.

Drew Dudley, who spoke at the TEDxToronto in 2010, is the Leadership Development coordinator at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, and is the founder of Nuance Leadership Development Services, a company that focuses on building leadership strategies for communities, organizations and individuals. In his TED Talk titled “Everyday Leadership,” Dudley laments the disparity between perceptions of leadership and what leadership actually entails, at least in terms of the outcomes of leadership efforts.

According to Dudley “we have made leadership into something bigger than us, something beyond us” because we have made leadership all about “changing the world.”  In a typical study of leadership, he continues, “we spend so much time celebrating amazing things that hardly anybody can do that we’ve convinced ourselves those are the only things worth celebrating.” By focusing incessantly on greatness, he concludes, “[w]e start to devalue the things that we can do every day.”

Substitute “innovation” for “leadership” and it is possible to see how the modern innovator faces the same challenge.

We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the life-changing innovations of the present (smartphones, social media, artificial intelligence) and analyze how innovators developed those solutions without recognizing that few, arguably none, of us as innovators will be able to replicate such developments in our future work. Although the process by which the innovators created these solutions is important, we need to remind ourselves that innovation is not limited to world-changing discoveries.

Rather, innovation can be simple changes that result in small improvements.  Dudley’s message about leadership is how small steps taken by a person can change the world, one individual at a time.  One’s actions don’t have to result in a user base of a billion people.  Positively impacting the life of one individual is a good place to start.


Peggy Noonan, “Why History Will Repay Your Love,” Wall Street Journal (May 27, 2017), p. A13.

David McCullough, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (New York: Simon Schuster, 2017).

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