Archive for the ‘innovator’ Category

Have you seen the new movie “The Social Network”? This brought back into the limelight the issue of “simultaneous invention”, which is analogous to “simultaneous discoveries” (i.e., several people having a similar idea at about the same time) related to the creation of the wildly popular social online network Facebook.

“Tracks and Sky,” Hank Conner

Some quick research on the subject revealed that there have been many significant simultaneous discoveries and inventions we all know about, which had been conceived independently by several people, many of whom we (I) did not previously heard of. What I got to wondering about is mainly how best to deal with the moral issue, also highlighted by the movie, which is: “to whom is the credit due?” and “why?

The initial work of William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, who put together in 1922 a list of 148 major simultaneous discoveries they called “multiples” is summarized in many other works, but I found a free access article by Malcolm Gladwell (“In the air”). Familiar simultaneous discoveries include: decimal fractions, calculus, conservation of energy, evolution, or sunspots. “Multiple” inventions of familiar things range from the typewriters and thermometer to steamboats and color photography. For an additional in-depth look, see a recent article in the Wired magazine interviewing two people who wrote books on the subject of the history of innovation, arguing that ideas do not come from solitary minds (“Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson on Where Ideas Come From”)

Many of us have heard of, or probably personally experienced, the simultaneous creation of new knowledge or technology during our careers in business or science, which I am referring to as parallel thinking. If one thinks of it, this should not be surprising as we are all riding on the same waves of knowledge and technology and thus the horizons might become simultaneously, yet independently, clear to several from the top of the wave. At least when a patent is filed for an invention, establishing precedence is more clear-cut, as it is indicated by the date when the author disclosed the invention. More fuzzy is the case of discoveries and scientific work that does not get patented and the only claim to priority may rely on the date of a peer-reviewed publication describing the discovery, the proverbial proof of being seen in “black and white”.

Publications are the lifeblood of science, and they can make or break a scientist’s career, from ensuring his/her ability to secure from laboratory funding to recognition for the Nobel Prize, which had been frequently split among independent thinkers recognized for related work. A lot of background research goes into that specific process. Thus giving credit where credit is due is especially important for scientists. A practice I noticed more and more frequently is for journals to publish simultaneously peer-reviewed articles addressing similar questions submitted by independent scientific groups. This seems to be a better way to deal with the potential of being “scooped” even by days only when reporting on important work. Did it happen to you? It happened to me (more than once) that the reviewers of our manuscript commented that our work was either no longer exciting enough to warrant publication or that it now needed to be significantly changed because someone had just published (or about to publish) similar experiments/results while our manuscript was still under review (and thus we were actually unaware of their work or findings). Thus by allowing independent groups to communicate simultaneously their analogous work in peer-reviewed publications could help even the playing field, or would it?

For those not familiar with the “peer-reviewed” term, original scientific work needs to be examined anonymously by people considered experts in the area (or “peers”) before it can be published or funded. The process requires that such reviewers remain anonymous (for good reasons). Thus, the current system requires one’s work to pass the scrutiny – and meet the approval! – of people working in the same field, likely on the exact same scientific problem, and thus effectively competing for the same source of funding or career opportunities and public recognition. Can you perhaps imagine Google waiting for Yahoo to approve their new search algorithm before making it public? A thin line for parallel thinking and walking! Take for instance the story a close friend shared. One of his manuscripts had been under review for almost a year, with each round taking months instead of the promised weeks, seemingly to satisfy the lingering comments and reservations of one of the three reviewers. While attending a national meeting, he was told by someone who claimed to be close to one of his reviewers that the reviewer was feverishly ramping up similar experiments. My friend was puzzled by the breach of reviewer’s confidentiality (especially in conjunction with his attempt to duplicate the work) and lack of actual proof, and thus decided to classify the information as “gossip.” Imagine his surprise when, after finally getting a positive decision for publication, he found his article following  another one reporting similar experiments and findings, co-authored by the same person he had been warned about. The submission dates indicated that his manuscript had been received first but held back longer, the other one was an expedited communication. For those not clued in, the work had been “simultaneous” and likely forever would be regarded as such. My friend asked for advice on what should he had done when he was warned and when the information was confirmed. Do you think it was even worth worrying about doing something?

“Parallel lines meet at infinity.” If so, are there better ways in which we could recognize parallel thinking and even leverage it for innovation? Maybe it would accelerate some… “trains of thought?”

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What do Leningrad, cowboys, a Finnish rock band, and the Red Army Choir have in common? They perform together… “Sweet Home Alabama!!!”

OK, this might sound like something I could have made up after having too much eggnog this holiday season, but no, you can check it out for yourself. I’ll venture to say this is the most edgy and innovative interpretation of the old favorite.  The Finish band that calls itself the “Leningrad cowboys” obviously increased its appeal (and credentials?) compared to their earlier interpretation by adding to the mix another unexpected ingredient: the Red Army choir singing in English, vigorously and it seems in the same time nostalgically (although the song might have been the only reason for which many of the singers first heard about Alabama).  While the musical intersection of all these apparently disparate entities might not be something all of us think as great, courtesy of YouTube, at the time I am writing this 2,254,837 people saw the video which is rated as a perfect five star. The masses have spoken!

On my side this discovery strangely connected with the advice received this week from a Nordstrom customer representative: “if you can rock it, go for it!” after I had been contemplating – for some time – buying something that would normally land outside my comfort zone. I tried to make up my mind by briefly positioning the article in front of me – as you can do these days with some online retailers that have embraced “augmented reality” – and glancing in one of those large mirrors between racks. While doing this two separate times, several customers passing by exclaimed: “wow, that really looks good on you!” Maybe they were just trying to be nice, but getting the “independent” encouragement, made me believe that I might be able to “rock it.” I still have to test that idea by actually wearing the item this season… By the way, this experience also indicated to me that the ability to share the result of virtually trying stuff on is a feature that would be tremendously popular (online retailers might want to take note!).

Meanwhile, I thought that the shopping assistant’s “advice” might be just the way we need to start thinking more often in many other areas of our life to step out of our daily boxes. Think how to “rock it” in work-related endeavors, unleashing a remarkably innovative project, maybe? Many times the only limitation is that mental barrier we have created for ourselves. Our analytical brains are very good at creating “acceptable” frameworks for our thinking and behavior, providing all the reasons for which something might fail, including that it just may not fit with what is expected… How many times did you hear: “this is not how we do things around here?” So, here is another way to take a good tally: Do you need to innovate? If successful, can you envision a positive impact of your plan? Are you committed to doing what it takes to bring it to fruition? Are you (physically/mentally) capable of doing it? Then, finally… Why not???

The Finish band and the Red Army choir rocked it in front of huge enthusiastic crowds online and off line. More and more people take their chance – publicly – on testing their ability on TV and many more are watching them religiously. So, are you still a “wall flower,” looking sadly at the dance floor wondering why nobody can see that you can and would like to dance, or are you simply worried about looking out of place? Here is a suggestion for us in 2010: if we THINK we can dance, let’s go for it! At least, we will not forever wonder “what if I tried?” Some of us will get the big prize. It might even be you, but you’ll never know unless you go for it!

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Panther Chameleon, Smithsonian National Zoological Park

Panther Chameleon, Smithsonian National Zoological Park

I recently discovered after a blog post  about the amazing (and ‘highly desirable’) capacity to “perfectly blend-in” reignited my long standing amazement regarding this remarkable power, widely associated with chameleons (the creatures). As a scientist, I have been most intrigued by the biological system(s) that support the chameleon capacity to change color, apparently at will, i.e., I have been wondering “how do they do this?” As a dilettante observer of behaviors, the question was “when and why” do they decide to blend in? The “chameleon” designation has been extended to describe humans capable of similar behavior and is frequently considered sinonimus with ‘liar’.

So, I finally spent a few minutes trying to finally get a quick answer to my questions. Thanks to the information available on the Internet, I was not only able to read about it (I will not bore you with the scientific details), but watch chameleons “in action” changing their color amazingly fast. What struck me most, watching a short but telling video from Animal Planet , was the fact that chameleons use different colors to clearly display their mood! A cool green chameleon parading around quickly turns bright red (just like people!) when angered by a trespassing competitor. I thought:” …Wait! Isn’t the clear indication of one’s mood the opposite of ‘blending in’?” Then right at the end of the clip, the defeated chameleon finally changes its color to perfectly blend in the surroundings… Here was the solution to the apparent contradiction: clearly displaying the mood, yet perfectly blending in…  I think I just discovered the color of… fear! The color of fear is simulating the rest of the environment.

Being driven by the power of their convictions and passions, innovators seldom are able – or even try – to blend in, unless of course they are made to do so. The history of innovators and innovations can attest to this, remember the story of Galileo? Should we all try to blend in as suggested by many, or wear the color of our convictions? This brought back the memory of a nice little encouraging book, called “Peacock in the land of penguins”, independently recommended by several friends. I hear it is very popular with many who at one time or another felt like the colorful peacock, thought to be ugly, outrageous and a misfit in the land of the black and white formal penguins. All its efforts to blend were futile and proved to be unproductive. The peacock and other various birds left the dogmatic world of black and white and found happiness in another land where they celebrated and capitalized on the power and beauty of their diversity. Such places are likely to welcome innovators and fresh approaches. The only way to ‘blend in’ such an environment is to proudly display the color of your own convictions. So go ahead, be a chameleon or a peacock: “Vive la difference!”

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Can anybody become an innovator? Are innovators born or made? How much of the ability to innovate is dependent on learning from luminaries and from how many of them? Of course, one might ask first the question what innovation was. As I have pondered on that question in my first and other earlier posts, for the sake of briefly let’s just use the shortest definition of innovation I can come up with: “practical creativity”.

One could argue that you have to be a special type of person to innovate. Certainly, some are better or more efficient at it, but then again the difference might be that the others just have not been coached or encouraged to try.

One lesson that I would like to share is that it becomes possible to innovate when you realize that all it may take is connecting your gifts with your passion, your values, or what some might consider to be your ultimate goals. The more unlikely the combination between your gifts and your passions, the bigger chances you will be able to innovate – once you allow yourself to operate under this paradigm.

Here is why I think this works: you bring your strengths and then pushed by your motivation you will do your best to make things happen. Because you are passion-driven, you are willing to do what it takes, even if your efforts might not be encouraged and/or you might fail at first. Along the way, you will likely discover what else might be needed, e.g., what you might still have to learn or to be able to do, where do you need to be, with whom you need to associate… No doubt it helps if along the way you encounter people who make your discovery journey more efficient.

I think that real life examples are always useful. Should I talk about my innovation gurus and the insights gained from them? I’d rather not bore you with a list, so I will just mention the one I think to be my first… my 5th grade physics teacher! Somehow she made physics appear so cool and creative, yet useful. I was already studying art hoping to become a fashion or jewelry designer (“wearable art”?) but I was then encouraged to think I might be able to fulfill my inclination for creative endeavors AND in the same time satisfy my strong desire to help people (not only to look better)… Shazam! I could become a biomedical scientist.

I have continued to be fascinated by art and fashion, but went on to use my creativity to design therapies instead of clothing (the idea of personalized medicine is not that different from the idea of wearing clothes that really fit each of us, is it?) I have often gravitated toward art, even when doing science. By finding ways to discover and enhance the intricate beauty of the human body, as seen through a microscope or other imaging instrument, including developing a visually stunning technique to assess chemical reactions triggered by disease, I was able to stay close to practical art while in the same time fulfilling my passion to help people by designing strategies to diagnose medical problems and to enhance their health.

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Our educational journeys, when and where (in its most general sense) did we start them and where through these have taken us, have a lot to do with “where we are coming from” (i.e., our current perspective and approach to things). Multiple personal and cultural anthropological factors influence our formation as individuals. To keep on my previous post’s train of thought, I will refer specifically to issue regarding the exam type choices.

My own early educational experiences (I was initially trained as a physicist) did not include multiple choice questions exams. Quite frankly, it was probably the main factor that allowed me to survive the rather arduous process to emerge with scientific credentials. I became familiar with the multiple choice exams afterward during my North American education in the life sciences and medicine. As I concentrated on unraveling the intricacies of the human body I thought  the years I had spent resolving differential equations modeling inanimate matter behavior might have been a huge waste. Yet, I finally realized the real value of a training gained through examinations of abilities based on a combination of writing essay, solving new problems, and oral (“free style”) exams, requiring us to understand fundamental principles and to use them to continuously deduct or construct solutions on the spot. These had armed us with a system for thinking through any kind of problem. We also had to develop the ability to clearly (and efficiently) explain in words our thinking process and interact live with our examiners, which further encourages (forces?) cultivation of our creative side. I now credit my initial training for the ease of doing well later on my multiple choice tests. On the other hand, I am pretty convinced that, personally, I would have had trouble passing as successfully through a reversed sequence of exam styles.

One instance when the realization of the likely impact of differences in educational and selection systems finally struck home not too long ago. While attending a professional session aimed at assessing personality profiles, I turned out to be the only “creative” out of a group of 20+ scientifically trained people. The most surprising to me was my colleagues’ reaction: “How can you possibly be creative? You are a scientist!” (?!?) Furthermore, corporate HR guidelines recommend that people with my profile work in the sales or marketing divisions rather than in R&D. One cannot but wonder: are the current education and selection systems working to most efficiently filter out all the creatives from the scientific and technical fields?!? Likely! Furthermore, is the common work environment placing people into boxes, force fitting or even rejecting the ones who are different or refuse to fill predefined boxes? Would this be expected to have an impact on our overall ability to innovate? I would love to hear other opinions…

My hypothesis, that not only the field of education but also the place of education plays an important role in our predisposition to innovation, has been confirmed by many conversations with other foreign-trained individuals. Besides the many obvious ethnical differences that influence our formation in general, many of the foreign-trained individuals are the product of different educational systems where the multiple choice selection does not reign supreme, thus were not filtered out tightly by its use. Other differences are likely to put their mark. For instance, individuals might have also been trained to think more broadly.

Times also put their mark on the issue. The younger generations, currently using mostly keyboards to communicate, are likely to erode the domination of either side, allowing an increased use of both sides of our brains: the end of the lopsided – or maybe lobe-sided – “left brain-right hand” era”? We all, regardless of age, are increasingly using new learning, communication, and cooperation channels, a phenomenon which I think is majorly responsible for the definite surge in the interest toward understanding global issues and wide open cooperation. Take for instance the “crowd-sourcing” phenomenon, which allows a wide variety of people to jump at the chance to solve problems, including some that normally would not be presented to them, because they do not have the credentials normally qualifying them as “specialists”. Due to the broad availability of knowledge on the Internet, what one needs to be able to do is not to remember information, but be able to use it in a constructive way. Technically speaking, the only relevant product of the educational system should be developing reasoning skills and knowledge management skills, finally releasing us from our current hang-up on possessing factual domain knowledge, and the definition of ability based on narrowly classified specialties or specific degrees. We could then step into the brave new era of creative problem solving.


Addendum. As I was writing this entry, the following joke was landing into my e-mail box… (seemed to hit too close to let it drop).

“During a physics lecture to the pre-med class, the professor was explaining a particularly complicated concept. A student interrupted him:

‘Why do we have to learn this physics stuff?’

The professor responded: ‘To save lives!’ and he continued his lecture.

After just a few moments the student interrupted again. ‘So how does physics save lives?’

The professor intently stared at the student. After a long silence, he said: ‘Physics saves lives because it prevents certain people from getting into the medical school.'”

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I want to submit that attitude may currently be the main barrier to innovation. Plenty of inside or outside innovation might be unleashed by a simple “Yes!” that would allow an initiative to proceed.

Did you ever enthusiastically approach your superior(s) with what you thought was a brilliant solution to a major problem the organization was experiencing? Were you flatly turned down even when you already had an action plan that could have made it happen if only s/he had said ‘yes’? Why are people not saying ‘yes’ more often? A few years back, I got a vivid illustration of the likely reason which I would like to share.

I had just moved to the South East from New England. I found Southerners to be extremely friendly, but I soon discovered that occasionally I had a very hard time understanding some of their heavy local accent (and some of them had trouble understanding me). One day I was working in my new office after hours. The lady who was cleaning my office came in, introduced herself, and started chatting with me. At some point I could tell by the tone of her voice that she asked a question and was expecting an answer from me, but I could not understand what she was saying. This was something that had never happened to me before: even if occasionally I would not understand an isolated word, I could always get the gist of the sentence. This time, I had no idea of what she had just asked me! We went through a couple of rounds at my polite request to please repeat the question, only to realize that she was just replicating the sounds, only louder each time. I finally understood that there was no point in continuing the exercise. I quickly reasoned: “the answer to this question might be quite elaborate, but I assume any answer could be summarized by: ‘yes’ or “no”, a ‘maybe’ might work…” Faced with the need to take a clear cut decision, I reasoned further: “if I say ‘yes’ I will likely need to do something as a result, and I am not sure what that is. Let’s try instead…” I turned to her and gave full attention to her last attempt at shouting the question at me, then firmly replied: “NO!” I was not sure how appropriate my answer was for her question, but what came next was astonishing: she looked me in the eye and replied “Agh, OK then!” then turned around, and off she went. While I had just deflected an uncomfortable situation, I was left baffled, still wondering to this day what her question was!!!

The episode itself became, however, very illuminating later when it dawned on me that a similar scenario was likely responsible to the many “NOs” that I had received myself throughout the years when presenting my higher-ups with a challenging idea or one that was simply very novel. Their gut response (and easiest) answer was “No!” Maybe I had not been able to convey my ideas well enough, or they were unable to understand the value of my proposals; in any case, the immediate negative answer insured that they did not have to do a follow-up, eliminating any potential commitment. There is always risk related to supporting or even allowing a new initiative to proceed. The risk is very easily eliminated by simply quashing it at first sight, and the cost of turning down such initiatives is usually very hard to identify, while a high-profile failure is hard to miss.

Many corporations punish the failures that are inevitably related to risk taking, but how many out there actually keep track of what could have been? At performance review time, is anybody keeping track of how many potential innovations have been annihilated by any specific manager/leader?

Obama recently demonstrated the mass appeal and the ultimate power of the operative word “YES” (we can). It will be interesting to see if the “yes” and “can do” attitude will spread to also penetrate and inspire the corporate world. I believe it would be the single most important step toward unleashing the innovation US desperately needs…

Addendum: See an independent video illustrating this barrier to innovation that was posted meanwhile on YouTube….

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We all probably have recollections of this kind of movie snippets: a dark saloon or tavern filled with smoke and locals. Doors open, enter the stranger. The silence and tension that follows can be cut with a knife… everybody is reaching for their gun… In contrast, in his book The Medici Effect, Johansson describes the convivial atmosphere in a tavern at the intersection of waterways bringing travelers from all over the world. They all share a common thing, they are all “strangers” eager to learn from the others’ and reveal their own diverse knowledge about new ways of doing things in distant lands. This reciprocal mental stimulation works as a great idea exchange. New ideas are afterward disseminated for implementation in faraway places.  What is different in the two settings and how do these examples relate to innovation?  

While there is a lot of current agreement that large, diverse groups are innovative, I did not find much said about the “stranger in a strange land” situation in relation to innovation. Maybe less striking, but equally disengaging can be an attempt to venture into unfamiliar intellectual territory, an area outside the boundaries for which one can offer widely accepted educational or professional credentials. This is especially hard when the person is a “lone stranger” facing a homogenous congregation, which shares an unlike professional past, or even just a different way of thinking. For instance, a previously well-recognized and respected expert can expect to receive mockery or total dismissal when offering an opinion in a gathering of specialists trained in a different discipline. Some of these “strangers” may be enthusiastic but inexperienced, yet others might be already recognized specialists in another field or corporation making a dramatic mid or late career change to join a long-established group. Their fresh perspectives are likely to be greeted with similar unwelcoming receptions. No wonder many people prefer to avoid stepping out of their comfort zone and they refrain from offering fresh perspectives.

What do we, the “natives”, stand to lose by not welcoming inputs from neophytes, is there a benefit to listening to someone who “does not have a clue”? Many!!! People who had different training and different experiences did not have a chance to learn about the “accepted” rules, hence they do not have preconceived ideas of what’s “right” or why “this would never work”. These people stun the domain experts by asking the question which we should all ask all the time: “Why not?!?”  Personally I like to call these people “fearless” and feel they deserve the kind of respect pioneers get.

My high opinion has been forged during the many years in which I have had the good fortune to work with bright people who were novices and/or came from very different backgrounds. Particularly fascinating for me was working with young engineers when tackling life science/medical problems (see article). These were obviously smart, well-educated people, but many could not even remember if they actually took biology back during high school, much like the saying: “engineers speak Greek, doctors speak Latin”. Yet, when presented with the request to solve a life science or medical problem, engineers turned in the most innovative solutions by applying their own style of thinking and tools (e.g., models and calculations using… yes, Greek symbols!), and by interjecting into the solution their previous, supposedly unrelated, knowledge. Efforts to engage engineers in medical innovation have been springing up everywhere, one I recently witnessed was The Ohio State Innaugural Engineering and Medicine Translational Symposium.

I decided it may be fitting to call someone an “alter-specialist”, as in the other specialist, while s/he engages in solving a problem normally considered outside her/his area of training/expertise. The alter-specialist did not have the chance to chose sides in following a camp of thought or another in the area of the problem (as the great majority of specialists trained in that field), thus can maintain an objective attitude toward facts found to relate to the problem’s subject matter. Furthermore, the alter-specialist has the capacity to access knowledge and processes that would not be applied to the problem at hand by the domain specialist. As soon as I had reassured them that it was not only completely safe, but actually preferable for them to do so, my young engineer collaborators would challenge my assumptions everyday. I also discovered it was important to immediately preface my interactions with the firm statement that there was “no such thing as a stupid question”, i.e., if a question can be formulated, then it just cannot be stupid ( as in “cogito, ergo sum”!).

The environment offered to the alter-specialist(s) is an essential feature enabling innovative problem solving. From problem formulation, to being able to guide the alter-specialists without imposing preconceived rules and ideas, with a constant attention to the mind-openness allowing to entertain what a domain expert could easily consider outlandish suggestions.

Importantly, I found many evidences that the apparently amazing success of the alter-specialist in providing innovative solutions is a reproducible event. For instance, I was pleased to read the data emerging from analyzing the success stories of the Innocentive platform.  Dr. Lakhani, who conducted the study, was cited by the New York Times to say that: “the further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.”  A fine example of constructive interference! One could conclude that the alter-specialists were able to solve these though problems by using alternative approaches, naturally sheltered from the potential scrutiny of the domain specialist while working solo until the solution was crafted. More and more web based platforms seek to harness the power of “crowd-sourcing” for innovative problem solving and design.

Clearly, breakthrough innovation is generated by “strangers” willing to dive into solving somebody else’s problems. This, of course challenges the status quo in many ways, including how we normally accept input or recognize potential capabilities, the widely spread practice of recruiting people based on narrowly defined and accepted credentials, and is in turn calling for the innovation of such cookie-cutter worn-out processes.

Please DO interfere!

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