• Innovation Continuum

Autodesk’s Innovation Continuum is a good way to demonstrate the critical value of experimentation. It shows us that every innovation in human history passes through five very distinct phases in the course of its evolution. When considering your innovation, it is important to consider where technology is in this innovation lifecycle.

  1. Impossible

    At first, the innovation is thought to be “impossible” — meaning it simply can’t be done, or hasn’t even been conceived of yet.

  2. Impractical

    Next, the innovation enters the “impractical” phase — meaning that, while it may be technically possible to do, it’s not really a viable option for a wide range of people and companies yet, often because of the time, expertise, or expense required to make it happen.

  3. Possible

    In the next phase, the innovation becomes “possible,” or widely possible. Suddenly, a dramatically larger percentage of the market/population/world can access the innovation. This is the phase where industries are formed, careers are made, huge amounts of money are generated, media coverage spikes, and the world can be changed.

  4. Expected

    In the “expected” phase, people have grown accustomed to an innovation and just expect to have it available.

  5. Required

    At the “required” phase, people really can’t operate without the innovation, but they don’t really notice it either. This is great, since it means it’s become essential, but it also means the innovation has now become a commodity.

To illustrate these phases, consider the innovation of the Worldwide Web.

  • Impossible: In the year 1950, even the most far-thinking technologist hadn’t conceived of something like the Web.
  • Impractical: The Web entered this phase around 1990, as Tim Berners-Lee essentially created an early version of the Worldwide Web, which was quickly embraced by a small but enthusiastic band of early adopters.
  • Possible: The Web entered this phase around 1994, with the advent of Marc Andreessen’s Mosaic Web browser.
  • Expected: The Web entered this phase around, at least in developed countries, around 1999.
  • Required: For the Web, this phase started around 2005, as the great Dotcom Crash faded, and things like Web Services and the Cloud started making the Web indispensable to much of the world.

Or even consider something like the mobile phone.

  • Impossible: In the year 1965, the American satirical spy television show, Get Smart, showed their lead agent, Maxwell Smart, using a “shoe phone.” At this point, the concept of a mobile phone was still firmly in the “impossible” phase of the continuum.
  • Impractical: The mobile phone entered the impractical phase around 1984, when Motorola released the DynaTAC cell phone, made famous by the Michael Douglas character, Gordon Gekko, in the 1987 film Wall Street. At this point, the mobile phone was no longer “impossible,” but it was not yet widely possible for many people to use (due to high price and low functionality).
  • Possible: The mobile phone entered the possible phase in the late 1990s, as companies like Nokia came out with the kind of cheaper, smaller, lighter, and better looking phones that eventually led to mass global adoption.
  • Expected: The mobile phone entered the expected phase around the mid-2000s, when a critical mass of people had acquired mobile phones and just assumed that other people would have them, too.
  • Required: Today, in the U.S., 91% of all adults own at least one cell phone, moving it firmly into the required phase of the continuum.

The Innovation Continuum shows that real innovation starts at the left of that continuum, in the “Impossible/Impractical” phases. This means that innovators need to be very comfortable with and excited by the idea of experimentation, because that’s just about the only way to operate in those two phases.