Innovation Inspiration from Science Fiction

Despite all of the discussion in businesses around innovation very few organisations seem to be able to successfully deliver products or services that create a step change in their market place or be able to open up completely new markets.

There are 2 fundamental reasons for this:

  1. Innovation is hard and scary.
    It requires a significant long term focus on taking an idea or insight all the way through a product delivery process without compromising the original insight or value creation. Innovations are often threatening to a market place and can meet resistance throughout the development process from people who may be impacted by the resulting changes.
  2. Innovation requires the ability to embrace the impossible.

    Products that change the market usually do so by identifying a need or problem that has previously been considered too difficult to solve. The Nintendo Wii innovated by selecting market that didn’t play video games. The iPad innovated by creating a media and computing new format that was neither a laptop nor a phone. Before it’s launch, such a product would have been considered impossible to conceive.

When I think about innovation I like to turn to the writing of science fiction to help inspire my imagination and to spark new possibilities. In most science fiction writing one or more leaps of science have been made beyond what is currently considered possible. The resulting story is then woven around this new environment where the implications of the scientific leap are played out.

Looking Backwards:

If we look back at older science fiction writing and it’s predictions it can actually amusing to see that some of the more ‘novel’ ideas of that time have been eclipsed by the technology that we now consider common place. We don’t actually have to roll the clocks back very far to see just how much our lives have been changed by the products and services and the underlying technologies that have delivered them.

1960's Office space

Take this image from the series MadMen set in the 1960’s.

There is electricity for lighting (and the bar fridge) but that is about all. No computer, no mobile phone, no fax. Just a doorway and a phone that connects to the phone switch room for access to the outside world.

Looking Forwards:

If we had tried to imagine the world that we now live in it would appear as science fiction. In the iconic Science Fiction classic “2001 – A Space Oddessy” released in 1968, a wide variety of future technological innovations were imagined and played out. From video phones to space shuttles and orbiting space stations.

In one scene there is a tablet shaped computing device playing video that looks remarkably like an iPad. So much so that Samsung has attempted to use this movie as an example of prior art in a patents claim.




In 1962 Arthur C Clarke authored the first of his three laws on the Failure of Imagination.

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

What these laws imply is that most of the time we block or reject our best ideas because they seem impossible. We immediately limit the horizon of our imagination and the potential of creating something truly amazing in the market place. When Steve Jobs described each new product as “magical” it was because he believed that he was putting a little bit of an impossible future into everyone’s hands.


Next time you are about to embark on some brainstorming for new market problems to solve:

  1. Stretch your imagination to consider solving some impossible problem, then push it 2 steps further.
  2. Imagine the world in which these problems have been solved. What else will be different? Who or what would be disrupted?
  3. Think about the value that will be created for a target market by solving those problems.
  4. Pick the impossible problems that represent the most value and consider the pathway to solving them.

or just do as the Red Queen does:

Alice : “There’s no use trying, One can’t believe impossible things.”
Red Queen: “I dare say you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

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