Farmers Didn’t Invent Tractors. They Were Busy Farming.

There's a cliche in innovation / entrepreneurship which says, "Scratch your own itch." That is, solve problems that you know really well. Choose markets you know really well.

But a lot of innovation doesn't come from the people who know the industry the best. That's because the closer you are to how something works now, the harder it is to imagine a new and better way of doing things.

In pondering why millions of dentists haven't been able to figure out that flaxseed oil helps your gums, Seth Roberts channels Jane Jacobs in this excellent observation:

For a long time, Jacobs says, farming was a low-yield profession. Then crop rotation schemes, tractors, cheap fertilizer, high-yield seeds, and dozens of other labor-saving yield-increasing inventions came along. Farmers didn’t invent tractors. They didn’t invent any of the improvements. They were busy farming. Just as dentists are busy doing dentistry and dental-school professors are busy studying conventional ways of improving gum health.

Jacobs also writes about the sterility of large organizations — their inability to come up with new goods and services. On the face of it, large organizations, such as large companies, are powerful. Yes, they can be efficient but they can’t be creative, due to what Jacobs calls “the infertility of captive divisions of labor.” In a large organization, you get paid for doing X. You can’t start doing X+Y, where Y is helpful to another part of the company, because you don’t get paid for doing Y. A nutrition professor might become aware of the anti-inflammatory effects of flaxseed oil but wouldn’t study its effects on gum health. That’s not what nutrition professors do. So neither dentists nor dental-school professors nor nutrition professors could discover the effects I discovered. They were trapped by organizational lines, by divisions of labor, that I was free of.

Bottom Line: Sometimes the big improvements come when you scratch someone else's itch.

12 comments on “Farmers Didn’t Invent Tractors. They Were Busy Farming.
  • Ben,

    There is a great chapter in the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise about this very subject called “Modes of Expertise in Creative Thinking”. It’s by Robert Weisberg and it analyzes evidence from case studies of exceptional creative performances such as the Wright Brothers, the Beatles, and Picasso. It concludes that domain-specific expertise is very important to creative advances, and that the Ten-Year Rule may closely describe the basis for creative achievement, but it recognizes severe limitations to the study and suggests that the differences between the areas of study may be as important as the similarities.

    So while it’s true that farmers didn’t invent tractors, there are many other areas where domain-specific expertise is a necessary condition for creative advancement, as is likely the case in most of the arts and sciences.

  • The Roberts/Jacobs quote is kinda dopey. Does he think agronomists have no detailed knowledge of farming? John Deere was a blacksmith, living in an agricultural community, who spent a lot of time fixing iron plows for farmers before coming up with the steel plow. The notion that someone without detailed domain-specific knowledge can come in from the outside and revolutionize a non-trivial field is a nice myth and understandably popular. And all of this so Roberts can hype an anecdote about flaxseed oil as though it were science?

  • I’m with SA on this, it’s a nice story but I don’t buy it. Generally I can even see how an outsider comes in and can see things others can’t. But I think people in the farming community developed tractors to be useful beyond being just an engine.

  • Cognitive biases are known to distort human judgments based on relative degree of knowledge or expertise that one has, in a given context. While there are occasions where awareness could be a curse (they introduce complexities), it cannot be generalized for all situations. An electrician may be enough to fix a broken circuit, but his expertise doesn’t count much when it comes to, say, designing power plant layouts.

  • Sorry, but they do.

    Farmers do invent tractors. I grew up on a dryland wheat farm in Montana. One of my Dad’s friends needed a bigger tractor, so he took two of them, removed the front wheels, attached the front of one tractor to the hitch (reinforced) of the front tractor, and used the hydraulics of the front tractor to steer the combination. He built a jig to simplify building these for other farmers in the area that wanted them. Later, the countryside was dotted with similar devices from Case and other manufacturers.

    No area of American life was more impacted by technology than rural farm life over the last three generations with a productivity gain of nearly two orders of magnitude. Check out what Peter Drucker has to say about this. Innovation was part of daily life.

    I guess I am wondering what you think “busy farming means.” We were solving problems at hand. We weren’t solving problems for, say the New York garbage collection issue, which last I was there is still a mess. (Leaving garbage out front of the store? Really?)

  • Working the conventional way is hypnotizing, is difficult to see things from another perspective.

    Seeing things again as if it was the “1st time” is a difficult thing to master, don’t you think?

    S Pavlina wrote once something like if you think you are in a 7 grade, go back to a 2 and do things differently.

    On the flaxseed thing, wouldn’t be great if chocolate did the same thing ^^

  • Ben,

    A great example of this comes from Duggan’s book “Strategic Intuition”. In the book, Duggan gives the example of how Henry Ford got his idea for the assembly line from visiting a meat processing plant in NYC. He was able to apply this same concept to manufacturing cars, and changed the world because of it. Keep up the good work.

  • I think the internet has enabled people from one area of expertise to more easily to connect with others, exploding the number of technological advances. This is why we need “generalists” who know enough about a variety of subjects as opposed to just relying on specialists.

  • Hi Ben. Given the comments here I think the concept should be define like this: ‘farmers didn’t invent tractors. But tractors were not tractors when they were invented’. Tractors may have been mechanical machines that moved things around, then farmers applied specific vision and knowledge to something that someone else created. Bue hey, isn’t that the principle of innovation? How many times I had a brilliant idea, got very proud of myself, then I googled my idea and found out a million people already thought that? Innovation is not to invent something completely new, but to connect dots that are already there and draw something with them.

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