Particle colliders have been described as being like smashing two watches together to figure out how clocks work. It is at times a crude tool but one that has, none the less, led to real discovery. I've always been fascinated by the images created by particle colliders. The image of spiraling particles recently made me think of the process of corporate innovation.
Most big companies are like the pre-collision atoms, electrons and protons that feed the process. They are bigger, tightly bound, and have huge momentum in a specific direction. They are on a track and hard to turn even when the market is telling them otherwise.
Innovation teams follow a path that is more like sub-atomic particles colliding. The particles themselves are smaller and more nimble than the atoms from which they came and the collision patterns have distinct characteristics. Instead of staying "on track", they seem to arc away from the original path in different directions. This, to me, is a core requirement for innovators. New ideas come from explorations in new domains, away from the mother ship. Many ideas must typically be explored before viable ones are found. This is like the traces you see of particles spiraling off in multiple directions. As promising ideas are identified, explorations spiral inward on specific solutions, just like the paths of the sub-atomic particles.
Lastly, to be successful, the ideas developed by innovation teams must return to the company's core businesses. This is like the final stage in collisions where outward forces are overcome by attraction and bonding forces. The smallest particles that had existed for brief periods of time rejoin other particles and start to form the stronger bonds that held them together in the first place. In companies, smaller, nimble teams join product teams or perhaps, like an atom, move on to their next set of interactions with the rest of the world.