Innovation and the Ancients
I’ve always been fascinated with the history of the ancient Greeks and Romans. From a western perspective, they were the original and ultimate social innovators. They created the very constructs of how we think and how we govern ourselves. Today it is somewhat difficult to separate the two because their architecture, religion, art and literature all seem similar to the modern eye, but a little digging reveals the Greeks and Romans were actually very different. The Greeks came first and are most famous for their philosophies that remain the cornerstone of Western society. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others of that era were great thinkers who valued ideas above all. The Romans were quite different in this respect. The Romans were pragmatists and their interest was in the application of great ideas. They followed the Greeks, adopted their ideas, tweaked them and then used them to change the world. The Greeks (i.e., Plato) wrote about a great republic, whereas the Romans took those ideas and actually built one.
This amazing relationship between Greek-like thinkers and Roman-like implementers forms the basis of modern innovation thinking. Applying modern language, we would say that the Greeks invented the social innovations, and the Romans commercialized them. Today, scientists and academics play the role of modern Greeks in that they generate new ideas, concepts and IP, and engineers and entrepreneurs play the role of Romans as they take these ideas and build new products and businesses.
There are important lessons to be learned from the relationship between these two great societies. Perhaps the most striking is what it tells us about the time lag between the invention and realization phases of ideas. Today we assign a lot of importance to the idea of being first, even giving it the title first mover advantage. Yet when we look at the Greek-Roman relationship, we see that it was not the first mover Greeks that realized the value of their own great ideas. Our current preoccupation on being first distracts us from the advantage of the second mover in the Greek-Roman relationship. Being second can be a lot cheaper and less risky than being first, as you can learn from the expensive failures of the first mover. The Romans did not just adopt the ideas of the Greeks. They also learned from the failures of Greek society. And it was this combination of great ideas and observed lessons that the Romans were able to apply so remarkably in building their empire.
None of this is to say that the Greeks were not important. In fact, without the Greeks the Romans would not have had the concepts to build upon. But it is the combination of inventor plus implementer that ultimately creates the value. So often I hear people debating the relative value of our modern Greeks and Romans, but the debate misses the point that both are essential players in the innovation play. The inventors feed the implementers new ideas, and the implementers fund the inventors with the proceeds from ideas previously realized. It is an amazing cycle that started in ancient times and continues today.
Ty Shattuck, the idea whisper