Monday, June 22, 2009

Can You Teach Innovation?

[Picture: Thomas Telford's Pontcysyllte Aqueduct from Wikipedia]

I follow a number of blogs and newsfeeds about innovation. Most of these stories lament that if business was only more innovative we would be out of the economic woods. I just saw such a lecture given by Tim Brown of IDEO to MIT's Sloan School of Business that makes the case for "design innovation". It's an interesting talk but I have my doubts it is the answer. Bookstore shelves creak under the load of business titles on the subject of innovation. Roundtables and blue-ribbon panels on innovation are convened at national conferences. The audience is busily planning new ways to come up with the next spontaneous innovation.

Somehow, the whole concept of "teaching innovation" by recipe seems unlikely to produce much real change. It seems too much in the realm of theory and not enough in the reality of practice. I thought about how I learn something new. Reading tops my list if I want background information. For a specific skill, structured lessons followed by repetitive practice usually work well. Music lessons come to mind. Being a music student is the simplest form of apprenticeship, which also works well for learning more complex skills such as auto mechanics or brain surgery. Almost all complex skills demand an apprenticeship. Is this true for innovators? Do you learn how to innovate by being an Apprentice Innovator? I think so.

I know innovation when I see it... and so do most people. So you want to learn how to innovate? Find someone to work for who is really skilled at it. Do your job but watch the innovator closely. Being under the wing of an expert innovator can help you learn how to deal with challenging problems. They can help you learn how to build the sponsorship that is critical to getting around the bureaucratic roadblocks that are always present. And perhaps most importantly, they can challenge you to stretch beyond your self-imposed limits to reach what you really are capable of doing.

The innovators of history were talented, thick-skinned, and they had a knack for developing sponsors, They had a burning desire to make their marks. Often, they would start in one field where they learned by trial-and-error in a small arena and then moved on to the field where they made their name. Most were hands-on from a very young age, learning the fundamentals of their craft whether technical or business. Formal education played a smaller part in their ultimate success than did energy and tenacity. The people we think of as today's icons of innovation (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Page to name but a few) fit the description perfectly.

Here's an historical example I just came across. Thomas Telford (1757 - 1834) was one of the most innovative civil engineers in the history of Great Britain. He was a great civil engineer before they even had schools for civil engineers. Telford was a Scot raised in a very poor family. At 14, he was apprenticed (hands on) to a stonemason in Edinburgh. He was good at it. When he was 25 (notice he spent nine years learning his basic craft), he moved to London to seek his fortune. He gradually moved from being a stonemason to being responsible for the specifications, and the overall control for his projects. He was gradually moving from stonemason to being an on-the-job-trained architect. When Telford was 30, he met Sir William Pulteney, a member of aristocracy and a Member of Parliament. Pulteney recognized Telford's talent and became his sponsor, opening the door for Telford to take on increasingly more responsible projects for local governments. Because of that sponsorship, Telford started work on the Ellesmere Canal at age 35. Even at this stage, Telford was under the tutelage of a more senior and experienced civil engineer named William Jessop. Jessop taught Telford all he knew about canal building and supported Telford's innovative design concepts. Telford built a thousand foot long canal aqueduct 126 feet above the Dee River valley. The Pontcysylte (the spelling is Welsh) Aqueduct is still operational today, two hundred years after it was built. Telford had previously built a more modest aqueduct using similar design principles so he was confident that his larger design would work. Telford went on to a long and very successful career of building roads, canals, and bridges throughout the British Isles. When he died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

[The photo is of the Menai Suspension Bridge built by Telford in 1826. The bridge still carries automobile traffic.]

My point here is that Telford succeeded because he had developed a natural talent, he was ambitious, and he had a series of mentors and sponsors who opened doors for him. As far as I know, he didn't read books or go to conferences on how to innovate. The few books that were available to him talked about the designs that had been done before, even back to antiquity. More importantly, he could go see real bridges and canals to learn from what others had done.

Maybe the conferences and business books can work and I am just a curmudgeon. But I feel more hopeful when I see hands-on apprenticeship programs where real-world problems are being tackled. Start-up ventures and new product programs teach in ways no amount of reading can replace. Sometimes these ventures fail but this can be the greatest learning experience of all. A good mentor or sponsor is there to make sure you take what you learned and 'get back on the bike'. In the end, the great innovators would not be bounded by the limitations of their current situations. They were willing to head out on their own when it was the best way they could pursue their dreams.

We live in very different times than did Thomas Telford. I am not suggesting that everybody ditch their current company and try to start a new venture. Not that many people in Telford's day left the security of their situations. But enough did to make the difference. Telford was not reckless or arrogant. He got where he did through a series of incremental, hands-on steps. And the result is still some of the most innovative engineering of his day...and even ours.

[Bonus: If you want to see how Telford actually built the aqueduct, check out this terrific 3D computer animation of it here.]

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