Andrew Hargadon has innovation figured out. Hargadon, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at UC Davis, has studied the way big-name innovators such as Edison and Ford were able to come up with a steady stream of noteworthy developments that rocked the world. Hargadon put his insights in a book called How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth about How Companies Innovate. His book caused enough of a stir to land him a gig as a keynoter at the recent NI Week festivities put on by National Instruments.

One of the things Hargadon found was that the popular image of the supremely analytical genius innovator was largely hogwash. Most innovators don’t come up with their breakthroughs looking at the ceiling. A lot of their ideas instead are actually well known — elsewhere. The process of innovation is often one of borrowing existing concepts from one industry and applying them to another.

Ford and his employees, for instance, got their inspiration for assembly lines from Chicago slaughterhouses, even using some of the same equipment to automate their operations. Edison’s electric lighting combined ideas from the telegraph, the arc light, and the gas-lighting industry.

The lesson, says Hargadon, is that ideas spawning revolutions needn’t be revolutionary, but technologists need open minds. In fact, the not-inventedhere syndrome is often the result when organizations focus too narrowly on a problem. They fall into the NIH mode of thinking that no outsider can have useful insights.

You might say that when it comes to knowing how to go about innovating, Hargadon “gets it.” That brings us to Pulitzer-winning journalist Thomas Friedman, a guy who apparently just doesn’t get it when the subject is innovation.

Friedman, author of The World is Flat and The Lexus and the Olive Tree, is now on a green-energy kick with his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. He was quoted recently as advocating we invent our way out of a dependence on fossil fuel by having “100,000 people in 100,000 garages trying 100,000 things.”

So far, so good. But he also calls current efforts at devising green-energy sources “hopelessly haphazard and piecemeal.” He argues green energy will take a coordinated systems approach, from the White House to corporations to consumers. (Left unexplained is how he would “coordinate” 100,000 people in garages.)

The problem with the vision of a coordinated effort is that it smacks of choosing winners. It doesn’t allow for the revolution-spawning ideas that often come from outsiders. And there are already several of these floating around for green energy.

For a case in point, consider Shai Agassi, a software guy and one-time honcho with SAP AG. Agassi has suggested blanketing the country with smart charge spots for electric vehicles. Drivers could plug in anywhere, anytime, and would subscribe to a plan modeled after those in the cellphone industry. Just as you pay for minutes on your cell phone, you would buy miles on your car, for a cost less than the equivalent cost of gas. You’d receive your wheels, and perhaps even lease its battery, from your juice provider. Drivers who didn’t want to wait for a charge would be able to pull into a car-washlike shed and get a fresh battery in a few minutes.

Of course, Agassi probably would never get the time of day from organizers of a “coordinated effort” on green energy. After all, his ideas are NIH.

— Leland Teschler, Editor