Posts Tagged ‘innovator’

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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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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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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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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It’s that time of the year.

Standing at the threshold, ready to step into the New Year: looking back, gazing forward…  Already considering what would we like to conclude about the year 2009 one year from now, when standing in the same position. The best chance of success will come from deciding now what we would like to see then. A great resolution would be making more room for innovation in our lives, workplace, and the world.  A good start would be working on ourselves, the New Year could be a year dedicated to “innovate thyself!”

A good start is to break some of our old routines; they say that simply finding a new route for the daily commute or using a different hand to soap yourself under the shower could work wonders…  Many intriguing options are within our reach: make an effort to meet new people and listen to their diverse interests, it might be enough to trigger the desire to learn something new, read a different genre, travel to places not visited before, take up a new hobby or cause. Any of these actions would help us look at our old problems from a fresh perspective, thus providing a good chance for innovative solutions, or even eliminating the problem altogether.

My own experiences with previously forcing myself to do any of the above have been all worth the trouble. One of the major problems I used to have, given the constant demands of work, family, and the ever intrusive e-mail and phone, was a perpetual lack of “quiet time” which I need for creative thinking. Unknowingly to me, I solved this problem by adding yet one more – new – thing to my already busy schedule. At a professional conference I met someone who passionately spoke about his hobby, rowing, something I had always wanted to try, but thought I would never have the time to learn or be good enough at. The following year I decided I was to actualize my long standing curiosity for it. Ten years later, I am still rowing. I have discovered that, in addition to its obvious health benefits, solo rowing was for me the best setting for the quiet time I needed for thinking (see my personal blog: Sports-inspired). The natural water surroundings have been conducive to finding creative solutions for both my professional and personal problems, and unsurprisingly, engendered the specific thoughts about harnessing the power constructive interference.

Apparently old dogs can learn new tricks and be better for it.

Have An Innovative New Year!

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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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The other day a friend shared by e-mail the enchantment generated by her current visit to Barcelona, especially by the art work of those she deemed geniuses. She added: “One wonders what it took in their genes and/or their shared environment to produce work that’s continuing to create a mark in time and across space.….

A thought that came to my mind almost immediately, triggered by my own treasured memories of Gaudi’s miraculous creations, was the irony of it all. I replied “can you even imagine that, at least here (in the US), it is a common misconception that the word “gaudy” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gaudy) that expresses tastelessness, tackiness, is a direct reference to the work of Gaudi?!? 

I heard this confusion so often, including “seen it on TV”, that I was appalled and researched its origins. I was pleased to see the origin of the word well preceded Gaudi. But then, why would anybody assume this word was inspired by his work?!? Because it’s so different! Gaudi drew from the Gothic and Spanish architecture and mixed in his love of nature to invent his own new architectural style. He used his extraordinary imagination not only to design visually magical buildings, but also to come up with unconventional designing tools, using photography to capture and later to reproduce results of physics experiments (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoni_Gaud%C3%AD).

Millions continue to travel from afar to be enchanted by Gaudi’s creations.  One of his master creations, La Sagrada Familia, towers the city, unfinished, still daunting today’s builders, yet it attracts and wows more visitors than most nicely completed cathedrals. How many of us are familiar with the work of Gaudi’s contemporary who were considered at the time to create with great subtle taste?  Standing out in a crowd is hard. Next time when someone offers something that is not our everyday thing, maybe even uncomfortably different, we should stop and consider adopting a fresh way to look at it. What if it is not just out-of-the-ordinary, but actually extraordinary?

Sagrada Familia towers over Barcelona


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