Is Innovation Dwindling in Importance?

Economist cover Jan 10 2013Take a look at the cover story of the January 12 issue of the Economist magazine. Inside, the leading editorial is titled “The Great Innovation Debate.” This refers to a growing belief, among academics and venture capitalists, that anything new that we invent will just not be as important and life-changing as all of the things we’ve already invented. Think of how much the invention of electricity changed our everyday lives. Computers are cool and fun, but no one would argue that they’ve changed the world as much. Think of how much the invention of antibacterial medications has been; we no longer worry about polio or syphilis or tuberculosis. And even before that, think back to the time when cities figured out how to handle urban sanitation, resulting in clean water and a drastic reduction in disease. Compared to all of these, Angry Birds or Windows 8 or the iPhone just don’t seem all that important.

If this is true, it’s a problem because innovation is the driver of productivity increase, and productivity increase is the driver of a higher quality of life.

I was reminded of a 1998 article in MIT’s Technology Review, inspired by John Horgan’s 1997 book The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Horgan’s book, and the magazine article, argued that scientists had already made all of the most important discoveries. We know the basic structure of matter. We know how cells and genes work (at least, the broader outlines). We know the structure of the universe and the cosmos. Horgan’s point was that anything else we discover is just going to be details that fill out the big picture that we already know. I mailed in an objection to this that was published in a later issue: My objection is that Horgan focused on the natural sciences, while our biggest lack of knowledge today is in the social sciences. (This is one of the reasons I chose a career in the social sciences…I thought there was more that remained undiscovered than in physics or biology.)

The Economist rejects the argument that innovation is dwindling, making the counter-argument that “many more brains are at work now than were 100 years ago” and also that communication technology like the Internet makes it possible for all of these people, and their ideas, to come together more effectively. This is the argument that Matt Ridley made in his 2011 book The Rational Optimist; he famously argues that innovation comes when “ideas have sex” and the more ideas, and the more “sex” (idea interchange), the more innovation–and this is made possible by the Internet.

I can see the logic in both sides of the argument. It’s hard to imagine an innovation as important as clean water or electricity or safe surgery. But on the other hand, there were scholars back in 1900 who famously stated that humans had already discovered everything worth discovering. So what’s your opinion on “The great innovation debate”?

Butch Morris and Conducted Improvisation

The musician and conductor Butch Morris died Tuesday in Brooklyn at the age of 65. The New York Times obituary* describes him this way:

Butch Morris created a distinctive form of large-ensemble music built on collective improvisation that he single-handedly directed and shaped.

After several decades playing jazz cornet in LA and New York, Morris created his unique style of group improvisation, “conduction,” in 1985. Conduction was short for “conducted improvisation” which Morris defined as “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor.” For example, he would direct a performance with a baton, often establishing the tempo, while waiting for themes to emerge as the musicians collectively improvised. He used a set of hand gestures to guide the performers; a U shape formed with thumb and forefinger meant to repeat what you just played; a finger touching his forehead meant, remember the melodic phrase you just played because I’m going to ask you to play it again later.

Morris performed conductions with a wide variety of ensembles, including a 10-piece ensemble with saxophones, a turntablist, and a singer; a full classical orchestra; 19 poets (!); 15 trumpets; and many other configurations (including some with music boxes).

Morris had a fascinating professional life. In addition to his conduction performances, he was musical director for a short-lived ABC crime series “A Man Called Hawk,” and he wrote original music for the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC.

Butch Morris, improvisational genius, Rest In Peace.

*New York Times editorial by Ben Ratliff, January 30, 2013, page A21.

Ten Travel Necessities

My Friday night flight home from the creativity workshop in New Jersey was cancelled due to snow, and I found myself with an unscheduled night in an airport hotel. I was SO glad that I’d brought my usual “necessary travel items,” a list developed from trial and error as I’ve traveled to keynotes, workshops, and academic conferences over the years. Here’s my list of ten things I always make sure to pack. Please comment and share what’s on your own list!

I saved the best and most unusual one for last! 

1. iPhone, with the travel apps TripIt, FlightTrack Pro (it receives airline updates minutes before the staff at the gate know), and (find and book last-minute hotel reservations, at guaranteed lowest price available)

2. An extra set of underwear and socks

3. Lots of ibuprofen

4. A stack of all the magazines that I never have time to read while at home

5. A shoehorn, for getting my shoes back on after getting through security

6. Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-cancelling headphones (so expensive that I waited years to buy them, but so totally worth it and now I can’t imagine traveling without them)

7. Eyecovers and wax earplugs, for better sleeping

8. Tide To-Go Stick instant stain remover (am I a klutz or what? I end up using this on every single trip)

9. Bandaids (for foot blisters, finger cuts…something always comes up…see “klutz” above)

10. A three-plug wall outlet so you can always share with one of those people who’ve already taken all of the wall outlets in the airport terminal (this is a fancy one from Belkin but you can buy cheap ones at any hardware store)belkintravler

The Science of Creativity Workshop

Yesterday I did a one-day workshop near Manhattan for a national group of innovation managers (3M, W. L. Gore, P&G…). I do such workshops a lot, but this was the most knowledgeable audience I’ve ever spoken to. These executives live and breathe creativity and innovation. My challenge was to say something they didn’t know already–to give them information, based in research, that doesn’t appear in the usual business books on innovation. I decided to build the morning session around the psychological research that’s in my upcoming book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. This book (to be published this March) describes the eight basic steps of creativity, and it’s filled with exercises and techniques to help enhance your creative potential.

It turns out that these exercises are a blast to do in a group, and–because they’re derived from psychological research–they do a great job of communicating the essence of how the mind generates new ideas.

The organizer, Peter Koen of Stevens Institute of Technology, also invited neuroscientist Aaron Berkowitz (Harvard) to tell us how creativity is realized in the brain, and psychologist Angela Duckworth (Penn) to tell us about her studies of “grit”–the importance of perserverance and hard work to success. And in the afternoon, I presented my research on the key role of groups and collaboration in creativity (captured in my 2007 book Group Genius).

I wish I could say more, but the participants swore me to secrecy. So all I can say is that I was honored to meet these innovation experts, from companies that I admire. Sometimes when I talk to executives about what innovative organizations look like, they look at me and say “There’s no way my company could ever be that way.” Not these folks–they heard my message, nodded constantly, and said Amen. These companies are showing us all that it’s possible to be innovative in a large, profitable organization that isn’t necessarily a computer company based on the West Coast.

If you want to hear a similar message, you might consider attending the Front End of Innovation conference (in Boston, May 2013) where I’ll be giving a keynote, along with several other innovation thought leaders.

Innovation Is Messy: Boeing’s Dreamliner Story

Boeing’s new Dreamliner airliner has been in the works for nine years. Everyone in the industry agrees that it is an impressive innovation, a huge leap forward in technology. With the many innovations contained in its design, it will burn less fuel, fly longer distances, and keep passengers more comfortable.

The market has spoken in favor of this new innovation: Airlines have ordered a total of 848 of these airplanes, with most of the orders coming in even before they were manufactured. Only 50 Dreamliners are in service so far. And this week, those 50 were grounded by regulators because some of the lithium-ion batteries on board caught fire. (This is the same battery technology that’s probably in your laptop computer, but you’re safe–things are different on an airplane. And by the way, this is the first airplane to use these batteries: one of many separate innovations.)

I’m known as a proponent of bottom up, emergent innovation. This is the central theme of my book Group Genius. When I give keynote talks and workshops, I tend to talk about serial innovators like Google, W. L. Gore, Semco, and Pixar. These companies push innovation down to the lowest possible organizational level, releasing the creative powers of all of their workers. With everyone having ideas constantly, and then having collaborative conversations that bring these ideas together, gradually something significant and innovative can emerge.

But something has always nagged me about this process of emergent bottom-up innovation, and the Boeing situation helps me understand what’s been bugging me. Here’s what I think it is: The bottom-up style of emergent innovation only works in organizations where everyone’s group is relatively independent. By “independent” I mean that when you have new ideas, it doesn’t have implications for anyone outside of your group.

  • When a group at Google developed gmail, it didn’t have any interactions with their search engine, so they could proceed independently without worrying about constantly communicating with the search group.
  • When a team at W. L. Gore developed a new line of guitar strings, that new product didn’t have any implications for Gore’s GoreTex waterproof fabric. So they could proceed independently and not worry about damaging the fabric product lines.

Designing a new airplane over a nine year period is completely different. Every single person’s decisions are deeply interdependent with potentially hundreds of other people. The battery team (or whoever decided on lithium ion batteries) is deeply interdependent with many other design features of the airplane.

It seems to me that whenever you are innovating in a context of high interdependency, you can’t use the same model of distributed, emergent innovation. You need lots of coordination, and that probably means a more top-down, more organized style of innovation. You need lots of communication, constant confirmation that whatever new idea you have isn’t going to mess up some other group’s design.

I still believe that the most powerful form of innovation is the bottom-up, emergent process. But is this really possible in a situation of high interdependency and complexity, like the Boeing Dreamliner?

*Daniel Michaels, “Innovation is messy business.” Wall Street Journal, Thursday January 24, 2013. pp. B1, B2.

Learning Spaces and 21st Century Skills

Take a look at this fascinating graphic (click on the link, it’s a pdf):

A Fabric of Learning in Spaces 2013
(developed by the architecture firm SRG and  Jeanne Narum of the Learning Spaces Collaboratory)

At the left, you’ll see a list of 21st century skills, including Adaptability, Collaboration, and Innovation.

At the top, you’ll see a list of various types of physical spaces that are found on college campuses.

The content of the graphic shows to what extent each skill is fostered in each type of space. There is so much rich information here, but the first thing to notice is that “Traditional Classrooms” do the least to foster these skills. And “Tiered Classrooms” (like you find in a business school) aren’t much better.

So what do you think the college campus of the future should look like? What will we do with all of those lecture halls? After all, if this graphic is correct, then why wouldn’t we “flip” all classrooms and have all lectures videotaped and delivered over the Internet?

(Also check out my previous posts “The Future of College” and “Will the Internet transform college?”)

Tinkering Toward Innovation

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal,* Alex Foege is critical of “tinkering time”. My ears perked up, because this is a common practice at some of the most innovative companies. It means you give each employee a small percentage of each week to dedicate to their own pet projects. W. L. Gore gives each worker 10 percent of each week; Google gives everyone 20 percent; 3M, where the practice started back in 1948, gives 15 percent. In recent years, Apple started its own program called Blue Sky, and LinkedIn announced its “Incubator” program.

I advocate such programs in my keynotes and workshops, and in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. I recommend tinkering time as a solution to the innovation paradox: The main task of a company is to keep generating revenue from profitable business lines. You need to do this at as low a cost as possible, sell to the largest possible market, and charge the most the market will bear. The paradox is that this sort of focus is pretty much the exact opposite of how innovation happens. So why not devote a portion of the company’s energy to innovation, while continuing to focus the majority of the resources on proven money makers?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the traditional way a company invested in the future was to create a separate organizational unit called “research and development” or R&D. The R&D staff spent 100 percent of their time on innovation; everybody else spent 100 percent of their time taking care of existing business. But the well-documented problem with this model is the “hand-off” problem: taking an innovative new idea from R&D and handing it over to the rest of the organization. All too often, the organization can’t manage the transition and good ideas fail to be implemented. The most famous example is Xerox, which created a legendary R&D group in Palo Alto called the Palo Alto Research Center or PARC. In the 1970s, PARC developed most of the technologies that we associate with personal computing today: windows and mouse user interface, laser printer, networking, pull down menus, etc. (The Apple Macintosh was famously inspired by Xerox’s innovations.) And yet, Xerox failed the “hand off” and never made any money from its innovations.

Many innovation managers now believe that the “tinkering time” philosophy can avoid the hand off problem, by embedding innovation throughout the organization rather than way off in a separate campus.

So why is Alec Foege critical? He argues that it rarely works. (Even as he cites famous examples of new products that emerged from tinkering time, like gmail at Google.) He claims that employees find it “terrifying” and that truly innovative people are completely different from the kind of people companies like to hire. Real tinkerers are “dilettantes, free-form creative types motivated more by their own curiosity than by the bottom line”. He points out that if you are “ordered to tinker” then where’s the passion?

This isn’t what I’ve seen when I visit places like Gore and Google. I see people who are very passionate about their 10 percent project. They don’t seem terrified to me. That’s because failure is welcomed as a step toward later success. And it’s easy to come up with a long list of successful new products and services that emerged from tinkering time…so I’m puzzled that Foege would say “it rarely works.”

Here’s his proposed solution:  tinkerers should profit more from their innovations than the company does; companies should avoid aimlessness and instead demand creativity within clear goals. Well, we already know what will happen if companies do that. If tinkerers profit from their ideas, then people become possessive and selfish and collaboration dies. If companies provide clear goals, then you’ll never get a surprising, disruptive new idea.

I still plan to read Foege’s new book, The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make American Great. I’m just a bit more optimistic that it IS possible to foster tinkering within a company; you don’t have to be a loner in a garage to be innovative.

*Alec Foege, “The trouble with tinkering time.” Wall Street Journal, Jan 19-20, 2013, page C3.