Who Is the Mother of Invention?

You’ve heard that “necessity is the mother of invention.” It’s a proverb that’s likely over 500 years old. But what does it mean?

The saying might recall Captain Kirk calling down to Scotty in engineering, and Scotty iconically replying, “She canna take much more, Cap’n!” Fans of the show 24 similarly joke about Jack Bauer telling Chloe to “just do it!” as the push she needs to make the impossible happen. And let’s not forget the ingenious agent Macgyver. Our culture is rife with the myth of the skilled but uncertain innovator solving an impossible problem in an unrealistic time frame simply because it was necessary. This kind of resourcefulness is a cornerstone of Americans’ beliefs about economics and the world.

But the question is: How true is it? Not the one-in-a-million stories we pluck from the biographies of rags-to-riches businessmen, but the kind of everyday invention and innovation that drives our economy forward. Does desperation drive invention? Or is it something else?

The answer, as with many things, is dependent on the specific definition and context. Desperation as a sense of urgency to meet a particular deadline may spur certain kinds of innovation. But desperation as a state of being–that is, the lack of security around one’s position, as with financial poverty or the ongoing threat of being fired–tends to lock us into survival mode. Desperate people grasp at proven solutions that promise to get them what they need, rather than inventing solutions that may not be sufficient.

That’s not to say these solutions are without risk. But consider someone who agrees to transport bulk drugs: The activity is risky, but the payoff is assured. Innovation requires room to be uncertain about the outcome: Will there even be a payoff? Will it be big enough? You can see this play out at companies that are in danger of bankruptcy: Rather than innovating out of the problem, for the most part they cut down to the basics and try to replicate past success. For every individual that becomes more innovative under that kind of pressure, thousands lose the ability to innovate at all.

If not desperation, then, what drives innovation?

The first parent may surprise you: Laziness. We innovate because the way things are being done is just too much work. This is part of the reason for a disconnect between hours worked and productivity: An innovator can work half as much as someone who doesn’t innovate, and still accomplish more. Laziness gets a bad rap simply because there are so many who misuse it. One of my own innovations early in my working life was a matter of saving myself the tedium of several weeks of repetitive tasks. That innovation was ultimately spread to offices around the country and saved hundreds of hours.

The other is often thought to be exactly the opposite: Enthusiasm. We also innovate because we want something new and better for the future. Our ability to anticipate the future is one of the things that distinguishes human evolution from natural evolution: we can evolve not just for the present circumstances but for the circumstances we anticipate.

Together, laziness and enthusiasm are the push and the pull of an engine. Laziness, better described, is a dissatisfaction with or disinterest in things as they are; enthusiasm is a deep interest in the possibility of things to come. Spitting out what is and sucking in what’s coming is the process that drives innovation forward. Without enthusiasm, laziness becomes pessimistic and defeatist. Without laziness, enthusiasm becomes toothless; if the present isn’t so bad, it’s better to just let that future come on its own.

Necessity may be a parent of invention in at least one sense: We invent things that are useful to us. If we didn’t need it, why would we invent it? This reveals a critical problem with the way innovation is handled in many organizations. Some businesses try to institute an “innovation department.” But isolating the innovators from the problems is self-defeating. An innovation department has to go the extra mile just to understand what problems need to be solved, and may often end up solving problems that don’t exist or aren’t high-priority. The power for innovation is always best placed in the hands of those who experience the need on a daily basis.