Home Thinking Aloud What’s Old Is New: The Secret Of Innovation

What’s Old Is New: The Secret Of Innovation


by Amy Murphy and William Duggan, authors of “The Art of Ideas: Creative Thinking for Work and Life

How do you get a creative idea?

This question matters more and more in the modern world, as things change fast and you adapt to new problems or see new opportunities. For each new situation, you need a new idea. So how, exactly, do you get one?

The most common answer is: brainstorm. But let’s do a reality check: how many successful innovations actually came out of brainstorming sessions? Make a list of your favorite innovations and innovators. You will likely fail to find a single brainstorming session in any of their stories.

So how does it happen, really? How do you get a creative idea?

Let’s take an example. Google is famous for a creative workplace, where the walls are painted all kinds of crazy colors and shapes, there are places to sit that look nothing like ordinary chairs, there’s a whole room where you can play with toys… and so on. It looks nothing like a traditional office. So is that the secret to Google’s success – is that how they got their idea? Google is a fantastic idea. Did the Google guys get the idea by working in an office like that?

Let’s find out.

The Google guys are famous now: Larry Page and Sergei Brin. There was a third founder of Google, named Rajiv Motwani. He was a professor of computer science at Stanford. The Google guys were his students. They were working on his subject – and it wasn’t ‘search.’ That’s because no one at the time thought you could make money just from search. The idea at the time was a portal, like Yahoo, where you have all kinds of activities on the same page, including search. That kept you on the page as long as possible. Why? So they could sell banner ads and pop-up ads, and those kept you on the page even longer. Now let’s look ahead to Google: what’s on the page? Just search. You put in your term, and in less than a second you get your results. You click on the one you want, and you’re off the page. So a portal keeps you on the page as long as possible, and Google gets you off the page as fast as possible. So Google is the opposite of a portal.

Motwani and the Google guys were working on something else: data mining for online retail. Algorithms already existed for regular retail, and the three of them set out to use them for online retail too, like Amazon and all the new online stores. They used AltaVista to search for companies to work on. AltaVista was the best search engine at the time. It was the first one to do an automatic index of every page on the internet, download those onto lots of computers, and do a full-text search. A great tool – but it made no money.

So they started searching, and noticed something. The AltaVista search screen had a tab for ‘reverse links.’ That is, you could search and make a list of all the websites that link to your websites. This reminded them of something: footnotes. They’re at the University, so they know that there is an index of all footnote citations that list them in order. So if your book gets cited a lot in other people’s footnotes, you’re high on the list. So the Google Guys said: that’s the same as reverse links, where that other page writes your address on their page, because that’s what a link really is: a citation.

The copied AltaVista onto the university computers, took a data-mining algorithm and did this reverse-link ranking, where they displayed search results by rank. The university said this took up too much computer space and time, so they had to open it to everyone on campus. So they did. Everyone came back to them and said: you have just invented the greatest search engine in the history of the world.

So they switched, from studying online retail to starting a search company. They raised lots of investment capital – and spent it. They were ready to give up. They offered to sell their search engine to AltaVista for $1 million. AltaVista said no: they had no money either.

They kept working, without no clear direction. Then they noticed on the internet a site called Overture. It was a search engine without as many users as Google, but they were selling ads. And they did not display them as banner ads or pop-ups: they displayed them as search results, in a nice little list on the side. And of course, that’s just as fast as any other search results.

The Google guys wrote that into Google, and still today that accounts for 80% of their revenue. YouTube makes up 15%, but they bought that, they did not invent it. The other 5%: playing with toys?

The Google guys took previous elements and made a new combination. That method accounts for all the innovations that we can trace in any detail.

So when you need a new idea: search. The pieces of the puzzle are out there somewhere. And the best tool for doing that is….Google!


Amy Murphy is a Director with PwC US advising business clients on innovation, strategy and creativity. William Duggan teaches innovation at Columbia Business School. They are co-authors of a new book on this subject, “The Art of Ideas: Creative Thinking for Work and Life“.


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