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Let’s Not “Yada Yada” Innovation

2016 December 11

Most Seinfeld fans are familiar with the concept of “yada-yada-ing” sex, like when Elaine met a lawyer, went out to dinner, had the lobster bisque, went back to her place and yada, yada, yada… she never heard from him again. It’s funny, because we all know — or think we know — what the yada, yada yada means.

Unfortunately, as Jerry pointed out (see video below), sometimes we yada yada over the best parts. For example, we can say that “Elon Musk had an idea for an electric car, yada, yada, yada, Tesla transformed the auto industry,” but that tells us very little. Lots of people had ideas for electric cars, but none have succeeded like Musk.

This is especially common with stories about innovation, because while we like simple stories with clear lessons, innovation is an incredibly messy business. It can never be distilled down to a single event because it often involves hundreds or even thousands of people working across decades to take an initial insight and create a significant impact on the world.

Alexander Fleming’s Accidental Discovery

Many people know the story of Alexander Fleming’s. Fleming was a brilliant, but sometimes careless biologist who returned from his summer vacation in 1928 and found that his bacteria had been contaminated by a mold that was eradicating his work. He decided to study the mold and… yada, yada yada… he discovered penicillin.

Yet penicillin didn’t become commercially available until 1945, so clearly that story leaves out quite a bit. In fact, what Fleming discovered wasn’t very useful at all. It was just a mysterious substance — he called it “mold juice”— that could kill bacteria in a petri dish. It was nothing that could cure anyone which is why, when he published his findings, no one really noticed.

It wasn’t until a decade later that Howard Florey and Ernst Chain rediscovered Fleming’s work. They and their colleagues figured out how to transform the “mold juice” into a storable powder and develop a fermentation process it to produce enough penicillin to perform studies on mice, which were incredibly successful.

Yet still, penicillin was far from a finished product. In fact, the first patient died because they ran out of the wonder drug. So in 1941, Florey and another member of the team, Norman Heatley travelled to the US, where they collaborated with US labs to identify a more potent strain of the mold and develop an industrial scale fermentation process.

So while the “yada, yada” version focuses on a single “Eureka! Moment,” the real story is vastly different. It took hundreds of people, working across government, academia and industry to create penicillin.

Sugar Water vs. Changing The World

When Steve Jobs was trying to lure John Sculley from Pepsi to be Apple’s CEO in the early 1980’s, he asked him, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”  Yada, yada, yada… in 1984 Apple launched the Macintosh and changed the world.

People love this story because it shows how a ambitious can young man outsmart executives at major corporations. Before long, the seasoned executive from Pepsi clashed with the young iconoclast and Jobs was pushed out of the company he founded. Apple went downhill and was nearly bankrupt when Jobs returned to make it the world’s most valuable company.

Again, the real story is somewhat different. In truth, Jobs — a notoriously poor engineer — had little to do with the ideas behind the Macintosh, which were largely developed by Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay and Bob Taylor. Another curious fact is that there was no discernable productivity boost from computers until the late 1990’s, more than a decade after the Macintosh and 30 years after the initial ideas were developed.

It is also interesting to note that Jobs had a very mixed record after he left Apple. If the company hadn’t bought his company, NeXT Computer, in 1997, Jobs probably would have been remembered for his investment in Pixar, where he had no more than a minor operational role. Apple saved Steve Jobs as much as he saved it.

To be clear, none of this should diminish Steve Jobs in any way. He was, by any measure, a man of extraordinary talent and accomplishment. But again, when you look at the relatively small role he played in the successes he is best known for, you get a much greater sense of the limits of what any one person can do alone.

The Fourth Pillar Of Cancer Treatment

Few have ever heard of Jim Allison, but he is no less accomplished than Alexander Fleming or Steve Jobs. In 1995, after decades working as a lab scientist little known outside of his field of immunology, Allison developed cancer immunotherapy, considered to be the fourth pillar of cancer treatment, along with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

The road that followed was not easy. For three years he flew around the country trying to get pharmaceutical companies to back his idea, but there were no takers. “It was depressing,” he told me. “I knew this discovery could make a difference, but nobody wanted to invest in it.” Finally, a small biotech company, Mederex, agreed to bet on Allison.

Today, cancer immunotherapy is considered a wonder drug in very much the same way that penicillin was back in the 1940’s, curing terminal patients who once would have had no hope. Their stories are nothing short of miraculous. Many are still cancer free after a decade or more.

Yet here’s where all the “yada yada” gets dangerous. When Dr. Allison’s drug, called Ipilimumab, got approval from the FDA in 2011, it was ineffective for roughly two thirds of melanoma patients. Since then, it has been combined with a similar approach and its efficacy has been raised to 60%. It has also been shown to be effective on other cancers. Still, there is much work to do.

Today, Allison along with hundreds of other scientists continue to work on cancer immunotherapy, seeking to find ways to boost efficacy further, understand how it can be combined with more traditional therapies and extended to more patients. Surely, that work is no less important than Allison’s initial breakthrough in 1995.

Collaboration Is The New Competitive Advantage

Every story is a caricature. Some details are omitted to maintain the flow, while others are added to sharpen one aspect or another. The truth is always multifaceted and even the most faithful telling cannot capture any narrative in its entirety. So it’s natural — even preferable — to skip over some themes in order to accentuate others.

Yet we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that details matter. Alexander Fleming did not — and could not — develop penicillin on his own. That required a larger team with a broader range of skills. We can learn as much from Steve Jobs’ failures as much as we can learn from his successes. Jim Allison’s immunotherapy did not come to him in a flash of insight, but over two decades of working to understand the fundamentals of how our immune system works.

In doing research for my upcoming book, Mapping Innovation, it was these aspects that continually came through with every innovator I talked to. In fact, in his foreword to the book, IBM’s Chief Innovation Officer, Bernie Meyerson, pointed out that in his team’s development of silicon germanium chips, every success led him to realize that he had to enlarge his circle of collaborators, because advancement always leads you into unfamiliar territory.

Today, we face challenges far more complex than ever before. The end of Moore’s Law will require us to develop fundamentally new computing paradigms. Global warming means that we need to create new energy sources and battery technology. The new fields that we need to master, such as genomics, nanotechnology and robotics, can’t be developed in a garage.

That’s why today collaboration is becoming a competitive advantage. We need to leave behind the fairy tales and simple parables and absorb the details that so often get lost in all the yada-yada. Innovation is much more than the creation of new objects and ideas, but the revealing of truths in the service of human life.

– Greg


3 Responses leave one →
  1. December 11, 2016

    Along a similar vein is the development of the technology that powers mobile devices, WLAN initially developed by Austalia’s CSIRO (now emasculated by political and bureaucratic stupidity) in the early nineties.
    There was a ‘Eureka’ moment in the eighties, followed by a decade of collaborative research and successful patent applications in the nineties, followed by another decade on the shelf before the relevance and utility was realised.
    Now there is a chorus seeking the credit, CSIRO gathered a pile in royalties for a brief period, and the story is not well known beyond technical circles, and those who recognise the nature of innovation.

  2. December 11, 2016


    I think every country struggles to understand how best to promote innovation. One bright spot is the “innovation Corps” program in the US that teaches “lean startup” methods to scientists receiving government grants. The idea seems to be catching on and other government agencies around the world, including CSIRO, have begun adopting it.

    – Greg

  3. December 11, 2016

    I think you’re right, Michael. Creating stories around a brand isn’t new. However, what’s changed is that because of behavioral retargeting that digital technology has enabled, awareness doesn’t convert to sales the way it used to, so the need to create stories is much greater.

    – Greg

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