The "worn path" principle: noticing opportunities for innovation

When I was in college, back in the Pleistocene era, as I walked across campus I noticed worn paths cutting across the lawns between sidewalks or paved walkways. These had been created over time by thousands of students taking shortcuts across the grass. As I walked on them, too, I’d wonder about their creation. Someone had to be the first to think of taking that shortcut. But someone had to be the second, too. That second person probably wouldn’t have noticed the path of the first person—one person walking across a lawn doesn’t leave much of a trace. So, the second person was taking the same initiative as the first person. Within a few months, though, a series of independent adapations had left their mark—a path had been worn into the lawn. It prompted others to notice that here was a shorter way to get from point A to point B. And every so often, the University would recognize that it was futile to defy these users—they would build a paved walkway where the worn path had been. User-driven innovation. 

Not every common adaptive behavior leaves such a noticeable mark, though. There are counteless ways all of us modify our usage of everyday objects that other people never see, because they occur in our homes, cars or cubicles, rather than in an outdoor public space. Whenever I notice that I have “created” a new way of using, storing, cleaning or otherwise interacting with a product, I get a kick out of it. Because I haven’t really created it at all. I can be pretty certain I’m merely one of innumerable people walking an invisible “worn path.”

And when that happens I immediately wonder, What sort of innovation could eliminate the need for this adaptive behavior or could make this adaptive behavior easier? And I almost always think of some way the product I’m using could be enhanced or improved. I’ll look around to see if such an innovation already exists. Quite often it does. If it doesn’t exist, I’ll add it to the list I keep of invention ideas and product enhancements.

I’ve been doing this for quite a few years. Every so often, someone will come out with a product that incorporates one  of “my” ideas from years ago. Someone noticed the same worn path I did, but they got the paved pathway built. 

Why bother to watch for those moments when you are walking unseen “worn paths?” Even if you don’t have ambitions to be the next Thomas Edision or Dean Kamen, in a world where it’s so easy to feel isolated, they serve to remind us that we’re part of species with a singular consciousness. There’s something very powerful about that to me.