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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

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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Personally I firmly believe that achieving creativity and innovation in science and beyond requires diversity… of thought! If you agree with this statement, let’s see if I can maintain your attention (I know, merely hearing – again – the ‘Diversity’ word might have turned you off!)

From my experience, most of us are not intentionally biased, yet in the same time not immune to the various cultural influences that have shaped our choices, including whom we feel “comfortable” associating with in our personal and professional relationships, or whom we might subconsciously stereotype or avoid. Also from experience, the best way to “cure” this is to have the opportunity to interact directly and learn first-hand from people who are different, then, by engaging in a more sustained and purposeful interactions with those with whom we discover common interests – which in my experience always had a positively innovative effect on what ever problem was at hand. To get started, one can always find at least one common denominator with almost anybody else on this planet: whether it is some of the shared personal or professional experiences or interests, stage in life or career, common acquaintances, hobbies, etc. I can always talk to other parents about our kids, other scientists about their own experiments, or anybody about countries they live(d) in and I might have been fortunate to visit, etc., etc.

Let’s try to define diversity. Statistics related to diversity usually capture data in terms of the “visible” (explicit) differences between people, e.g., gender, race, ethnic background, orientation, so this is what we have to rely on in terms of citing numbers. While these characteristics constitute a strong basis for diversity, i.e., people with different life and educational experiences may be likely to think, be motivated and act differently, I will however submit that these do not tell the whole story. Personality traits also play a major role, e.g., some of us are more creative or more analytical, “big picture” or micromanager type, while other are more directive or sensitive, direct or indirect, etc. So while we might look very different we might think alike, or might look very similar but have a very different perspective and approach to problem solving. These characteristics, I believe very important in shaping interactions and results, remain less acknowledged probably because they are more difficult to measure (assess and capture). However, making a conscious effort to engage people who represent several of these is important in creating a strong innovative team characterized by diversity of thought! My favorite kind of “constructive interference“…

Coming back to statistics, recent numbers provide evidence that while the situation might be slightly improving, gaps continue to exist between the demographics of talent diversity both in the USA and all over the world, and the higher in the hierarchy the less of it. These differences are true both in academia and in the industry (see list of references, incl. articles from “The New York Times” and “The Economist” and several statistics). One of the top reasons identified for the gap is the lack of role models, i.e. having in senior/high-profile positions people with whom various minorities could identify themselves. Seems to me this is a typical “chicken and the egg” type of problem: can’t attract/groom diverse people unless they can have access to role models, and you can’t have role models unless you had groomed or attracted them to join… How could this diversity ball get rolling???

Three main avenues could be explored for finding “cures” for this potential issue:

  1. Official/Institutional initiatives: aimed at designing programs and allocating funds for education and operational support
  2. Grass roots initiatives: creating “spontaneous” support networks, that provide a critical mass
  3. Personal initiatives: “upstart” individuals willing to get started “alone”, learn all the hard lessons and then pass on the learnings to willing newer recruits.

Diversity is a wast subject so I will try to focus on just one of the facets captured by statistics and recently highlighted in a few articles, likely because it is still March the “women’s history month”. Here are some published and personal experiences related to the situation of women in the work place.

  1. In the category of “official” initiatives,The New York Times” writes about the current status of women faculty at Harvard, which had attracted a lot of attention not too long ago due to the remarks of then president Larry Summers who said: “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude,” which he said are reinforced by “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” By making this single comment, Summers helped with the status of women at Harvard more than could ever dreamed of! He single handedly brought so much public scrutiny that upon his resignation, Harvard appointed their first woman president (Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust) and instituted programs aimed at increasing representation of women faculty, specifically in previously seriously underrepresented scientific and engineering departments (for more details see original reference, below). The rest of academia and the private sector are not doing much better, especially in terms of women representation at the higher levels (see statistics for USA and Europe). In the USA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is prohibiting employment discrimination, however this is not universally applicable (see link for details). European countries have similar programs and have been passing additional related laws that aim at the next level of employment equity, including mandating that 40% of the corporate board membership be female. An article recently published in “The Economist” points out these measures would address the symptom but not the cause: not enough professional women to choose from for leadership positions! The article emphasizes that the best way to ensure an increase in the number of women on boards is to take steps to enable access of more women to the right experiences down on the corporate ladder. As with everything else, the human “talent pipeline” needs to be strong to generate a great output. My personal view on such initiatives is the while very useful to “keep us honest” and provide financial incentives and support, they are many times not very popular, especially with those who can not identify with the need and or the potential bias.
  2. The “grass roots” networks are by contrast those people choose to create and support. A truly great support system is created by people who are “like” and “unlike”, whether in terms of personal or professional characteristics (real diversity!) but are willing to understand, learn to appreciate differences and help widely. A person “like” me is able to share with me similar experiences, their “pain” and their tried strategies and successful solutions. “Unlike” people and professionals can help me understand the others’ perspectives and approaches. These represent a great opportunity for all of us to prove we are not biased. Such support networks can provide access to information via various sources (the best is directly from willing mentors!!) but also connect individuals with other education and work opportunities, including identification of collaborators. Also from personal experiences, the best mentors were those whom I had personally identified and approached for help, not the ones who have been “designated” to me via official programs.  In an effort to create support opportunities, I have startedMy Lab Your Lab” , a global online scientist professional community whose essential mission is to enable member-driven support. We encourage our members to reach out to seek and offer assistance from and to all.
  3. In the personal support category, I include individuals who have the courage to join work teams which are constituted from essentially different people to learn how to “survive” and actually thrive among them – diversity goes both ways! These individuals can become agents of change and the heart of the talent diversity snowball that allows it to form and get bigger… I think this works best when they voluntarily assume that role, because it is not an easy thing to do, requiring courage, extra time and effort, potentially at the expense of other professional goals. However, rewards could be great both for the person and the work place that facilitates such efforts. This is a very important point: the work environment needs to be supportive. No matter how accomplished and willing to help, such individual efforts will lead nowhere, just as the soil needs to be prepared, or else even the most exceptional seed will not survive.

One of my proudest contribution to diversity is related to my experience as a female and “biomedical” (medicine) faculty member joining a graduate program at the Georgia Institute of Technology: 100% male and 100% engineering. I think it helped that I am generally “gender blind” myself in work situations and I had been already operating for several years in another male dominated field, the world of academic cardiology. Yet, the first thing I thought of (because it was so obvious!!) and articulated to the people who had hired me was: “Next I will help you recruit some great female faculty”. Indeed they were on board with it, and together we proceeded to attract and hire two more women. Within a couple of years we became the “go to” place for female graduate biomedical engineering candidates, to the point where by the time I moved several years later, the student graduating class was 100 % (!) female. When asked why they chose Georgia Tech over other potentially more established programs, our graduate female students said that seeing several female faculty in the program helped them envision the possibility of academic success and increased their confidence that they would be able to relate if needed. Our ‘girls’ did not turn out to actually request or need much gender-specific help from us, the mere existence of female faculty had worked! My take home lesson was that it was worth taking the risk to be the first “one of a kind,” and getting involved in supporting efforts to attract and build a basis for more diversity which in turn engendered positive change and innovation.

So, several ways we can all get this ball rolling!

References:
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission http://www.eeoc.gov/employers/index.cfm
Lewin, T: “Women Making Gains on Faculty at Harvard”, The New Your times, March 13, 2010 http://nyti.ms/9QZyyX
Schumpeter: “Skirting the issue: Imposing quotas for women in boardrooms tackles a symptom of discrimination, not the cause” The Economist, March 11,m 2010 http://bit.ly/9rs8VA
EUR (2009) She figures 2009: Statistics and Indicators on Gender Equality in Science http://bit.ly/4QWnk5. EUR 23856 EN EUR 23856 EN (160 p.)
Leadley J (2009) Women in US academic medicine: Statistics and Benchmarking Report 2008-2009 http://bit.ly/8mB3e6. (34 p.)
AWIS (The Association of Women in Science) web page with links to various data sets http://bit.ly/97O2nF
“The Scientist” salary survey by gender and ethnicity http://bit.ly/d81RKP

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Agh, the lists are everywhere! These days you can’t find much to read that had not  been already organized that way. Most famous business gurus write books that are basically expanded lists that sell off the shelves, bloggers have numbered tips for everything. There are even friendly self-help materials that list all the great reasons for which you should present all you thoughts in the form of… well, lists!  No wonder, since great opinion leaders such as Guy Kawasaki tell us that writing lists is “an art” and for him this is the way to get him to read… I am getting worried: reading material that had not been already organized in a list might quickly become a “dying art“!

So, I feel compelled to speak up on behalf of those of us who might think this way. OK, I like reading lists – sometimes! For instance, this one that ranks the top five traits respondents found when asked to “decode leadership”. But besides dealing with categories that were ranked based one some sort of a quantitative analysis (e.g., “Top 10 cities for innovation”), or some logical successive action steps I might need to take to accomplish a very specific task, my poor brain, not very trained to remember things, is getting so confused these days trying to store and then quickly name or even remember how many things I needed to do to… save the world? innovate? get venture money? lose my belly flab in less than 2 weeks? And what were the only three steps I was supposed to take to become a proficient piano player?

Sometime this type of organization might actually be hard to my kind of mind! I do not think that everything can logically be listed, nor do I want to only read those things that can be… Should you, inspired blogger, try to make it easy for me by trying very hard to put together a list, please… don’t! Consider that while your thoughts on the subject might really get me thinking or fired up to spring into action, your conclusions might not make sense to me! Why do you want me to think that there are only ‘ten things’ I have to do to achieve X? Your specific list might not fit my intended use, or your implication that you hold the “definitive” truth in the matter might not sit well with some of us… Something else worth considering for those who like to put together “top 10”- types lists.  Brain researchers tell us that the longest sequence a normal person can recall on the fly contains about seven items – which might explain the popularity of that size group? The magnificent seven, and as many dwarfs, samurai, wonders of the world, deadly sins, seas, habits of… OK, better stop here, maybe there were more, I just cannot remember the rest!

Let me also share that there are people like me who go to the supermarket with a short shopping list: “milk, bread, fruit, something to cook for dinner” (basic drop dead lists), then still leave with a cart full of a jumble of fresh stuff, sticking on all sides – not quite clear what dinner will look and taste like – and with extra stuff for the next dinner(s), some chocolate, and maybe forgot to get the milk… OK, I know, I was told before, I should not shop for food when I am hungry: I might be tempted to make rush decisions, buy more than I need, etc., etc. Yet, consider that instead of immediately satiating my hunger by feeding from an orderly stack of boxes and cans of pre-cooked food, I am willing to postpone instant gratification to spend some time in the kitchen preparing a dinner like no other:

1.      not because I am the greatest chef, but

2.       because I enjoy getting involved in what I eat, and

3.       I like to surprise myself and anybody who dares to join.

Do you get my gist, Guy? lists can be usually formulated but might be less inspired than the idea behind them. And, for some of us, lists have limited use. Why make the list an ultimate goal? I, for one, have trouble remembering how many essential truths/definitive ways to do something someone else said there were… except those I could hum…. “mmmm… 50 ways to leave your lover….”

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No, this is not about Ballmer’s latest marketing campaign, but about evolutionary innovations.

Yes, Steve Ballmer presented the current state of economy characterized by necessity as the cornerstone of the latest Microsoft strategy/marketing campaign on innovation. I did not hear his recent presentation, but I read his column yesterday; I think he refers to IT innovations that would increase efficiency (not innovation) in other sectors. We’ll see how their strategy plays out.

I’ll focus today on the outcome of a strategy apparently implemented… 4 million years ago! After 15 yrs of study, 47 different authors contributed to 11 papers recently published in the October 2009 issue of Science magazine all dedicated to Ardipithecus (“Ardi”) ramidus and her environment. Ardi turned out to be the skeleton of a female who lived in Ethiopia earlier – by more than a million years! – than the previously declared oldest human skeleton, named “Lucy.” A lot of interesting and some quite controversial information came out of these studies.

One of the stories that caught my attention was what I consider a story (yet to be fully proven) of innovation driving the human species to evolve: the new theory about how we became bipedal. Based on anthropological evidence scientists suggested that faced with the crushing competition from the super confident super- successful alpha male for the attention of females, the beta male had to come up with a way to overcome his obvious physical handicap. His innovation was figuring out that he could walk so that he could use his front legs (arms) to bring back food to the females. See a summary. The posting plays on the catchy (walk for) “sex” issue, but we all know that at the root of it all is our survival instinct (at least it was 4 million years ago!). Females also must have collaborated to the string of innovations by making a mental leap as they figured out the value for species survival of a nurturing provider as a desirable alternative to the pure gift of strong physique genes. In the process they together also invented the monogamous bond and the family unit…  I hope you’ll agree that figuring out what women want – 4 million years ago – deserves special recognition by itself!

Couldn’t stop a chuckle thinking of what might have happen if this innovative strategy had not been implemented? (any sci-fi writers out there?) Maybe super sized humans would be still chasing each other on all fours, defending territories and herds, or worse, this race might have become extinct because not enough to go arount to take care of its abundant selfish progeny….

This might look as an ode to “the” innovative beta-male, but let’s quickly recap some of what we seem to have gained from his survival instinct fighting to overcome his physical handicap:

  • We became bipedal
  • We invented the monogamous bond and the concept of the family unit
  • We achieved biological diversity
  • We forced the alpha to adapt to add other offerings to their gift of purely physical attributes

Now, we could extend this thinking about evolutionary pressure to look at the fate of alpha empires, companies, and dictatorial leaders, who based on their significant advantage are driven by arrogance and entitlement. History shows that all eventually crash and burn due to popular rage, or, if they get lucky, they will get subtly replaced by the more innovative new kid(s) on the block: new economies, responsive businesses, thoughtful leaders. The quintessential question “so… does size matter?” could apply here too. My answer: Not if you quit trying to provide value to your constituency: nations, employees, customers, or allies.

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It was the final night of a long conference: all looked drained, every business lead seemingly exhausted…. then the music started!

This was my second time attending the Biotechnology International Organization (BIO) annual meeting. BIO ”represents more than 1,200 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the United States and more than 30 other nations. BIO members are involved in the research and development of innovative healthcare, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology products.”  This year’s meeting held in Atlanta gathered over 14,000 registered participants, including scientists, technologists, business people, lawyers, regulators, lobbyists, media, etc.

BIO seems to be mainly a giant biotech business networking event, indeed it is very useful especially in today’s environment where collaborations and partnerships are essential. Business “match-making” in many shapes and forms occurred, from a separate extra-fee event dedicated to company partnering to “speed-networking”, and making individual contacts during the sessions, exhibits and the many social events. A special emphasis this year was on collaborative efforts between academia and industry, and on international collaborations presented in parallel tracks that included examination of business, legal, regulatory, and cultural differences. A track highlighting “Exciting science”, included sessions on stem cells, nanotechnology, diagnostics, and new biofuels. Current efforts along these lines and emerging technologies springing from local universities, especially from the Georgia Institute of Technology (“Georgia Tech”), were well represented.

While San Diego, the site of last year’s event, is a difficult act to follow, the organizing committee for Atlanta put on a good show. Sir Elton John, one of the most famous and loved (adopted) Atlantans, spoke in front of thousands gathered at a keynote luncheon on behalf of his AIDS foundation. Atlanta’s weather was crisp (!) and its local music scene, benefiting from a rather strong tradition, boosted an energetic engagement of participants during a couple of events featuring the B52s (likely in their 50s’ but very much still able to bring down the house), and a local rock and roll/hip hop band, complete with a Bono look alike, at the “Tabernacle.”

Dance floor comes to life with BIO dancers unified by music

Dance floor comes to life with BIO dancers unified by music

The “good bye party,” was far from a tired, sappy “farewell till next year” (in Chicago) type of event. In fact, it was fascinating to watch the unexpected unleashing of human energy on the dance floor. Young and old, scientists and sales people, entry level and executives, now shedding their regular day skin (suits and ties), emerged as friends on the dance floor. The infectious effect of the dance music rhythm and maybe the conscious release of guarded behavior, due to being beyond what was perceived as the end of the conference, revealed the true selves. People became naturally drawn to other like-minded… dancers. Before long, the last remaining business cards were exchanged, and many napkins had to be used for contact info, as many had not anticipated the need to bring more cards. Such business contacts made when everyone’s guard was down were seemingly based solely on the natural associations between individuals sharing similar style/preferences, without prior knowledge of their area or level of expertise. I am wondering if these personality-driven connections will spark new business endeavors that would have not happen through regular business channels.

Oh, and besides dancing, this year I also organized and chaired an interactive session dedicated to examining current barriers to innovation in the life sciences, “Fast Forwarding Life Science Innovation: What Works, What doesn’t, Where Do We Go From Here?”  We gathered many great insights from the panel and audience which I will report on in future posts.

p.s. As I was about to post this, an email hit my inbox. Pam, a fellow BIO dancer (!) with whom we exchanged cards at the Tabernacle, is telling me how much she enjoyed learning about my business ideas while moving together to the music and is offering me a “blank check” for any collaborative proposal I may come up… Let the music play!

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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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