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.

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