Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What's Needed for Successful Innovation?

In Sunday's New York Times, Susan Cain, who is an author and essayist, published a piece entitled, "The Rise of the New Groupthink". In this very well-written essay she more or less bursts the bubble of the current trend which prioritizes group activities over solo efforts. As she writes in her opening paragraph,

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink., which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 
But there's a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. 

I couldn't agree with her more. In my 35 years of experience working in, and directing, R&D labs, I saw numerous examples of the best ideas coming from the solitary work of individuals. Team meetings had their place but not at the creative front end. This was the territory of the individual, not the team.

In thinking about what makes successful innovation tick, I see four things that are needed for successful (in this case, commercial) innovations:
  1. Very bright people who have the spark to think in new ways.
  2. Freedom for those individuals to explore their ideas without close supervision.
  3. Extreme persistence that provides the energy to surmount the inevitable naysayers.
  4. A very smart commercialization team that knows how to get the innovation to market.
When I was running R&D labs, I saw my job as identifying those people who had the really glorious new ideas and giving them space, time, and resources to flesh out their ideas. Often, my "management" meant wandering into their labs from time to time to have them show me what they were up to. Being willing to give them the support they needed quickly opened the door to their enthusiastically showing me their early ideas. The worst thing I could do would be to assign a team to them too early before the creative work was well along.

Our labs would often have fifty to a hundred technical people in them but not everyone had the creative spark. Many were more comfortable shepherding the creative ideas of others along the path to commercialization. It was never easy to pick out the really creative people during the hiring process.  Sometimes, those who seemed creative were just blowing smoke.  It often turned out that the quiet people were the really creative individuals. They were comfortable in the world of ideas more than they were in interacting with people.

Even so, getting a new innovation underway often took the combined efforts of both the innovator and supportive management. There was always a reason that the really creative ideas were deemed by upper management to be impractical or unattractive from a marketing perspective.  The innovator was often the best person to explain the technical nuances of his or her idea. My role in management was to wrap the idea in the acceptable attire of our business so that it wasn't seen as too outside the box to be acceptable. Often, ideas would percolate for years before suddenly becoming "obvious" to everyone that they should be commercialized.

At that point, getting a really good team of people together to go through the paces of manufacturing, marketing, perhaps regulatory approvals, and sales became the priority. Great teams could do wonders to get the idea out the door. But not all teams were great and many good ideas would languish for want of a strong commercialization team.

The inventors and innovators were often gratified to see their ideas go all the way through commercialization but that wasn't what motivated them. Their motivation came from the freedom to do it again -- to come up with another new idea.  They basked in the knowledge that they were appreciated for what they could create.  We all crave the approval of our peers. For them it came not through promotion to becoming a team leader but through the ability to have the space to explore their ideas.

In Ms. Cain's Times' essay, she quotes Steve Wozniak, the engineer who designed the Apple II computer:

Most inventors and engineers I've met are like me... they live in their heads. They're almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone... I'm going to give you some advice that may be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team. 

I couldn't agree more.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Twittered to Distraction

For the last month or two, I decided to try to see if Twittering on technology topics would be useful. The result of my test is that I think Twitter can drive you to distraction and not add much to the conversation.  Let me explain my observations a little more carefully.

I Tweet under the handle @techalmanac1.  I decided that in addition to my sporadic blogs, I would look at what was going on the Twitter-sphere and pass on the best and most relevant posts on technology. I was following a host of technology sites including Scientific American, the Smithsonian, Science aggregators, Fast Company, Fortune, Forbes, and many others. I was less interested in the "what I am doing right now" sort of Tweet compared to links to news articles and reports. Over the month or two I was doing this, I found it took me hours each day to scan even the 100+ feeds I was following and review them for distribution. My reward? I grew my Followers from under ten to maybe 50 or so.  I appreciated the followership. In the positive column, I found that I was reading more about current and future technology and was more aware of what was the buzz of the day.  The negative was that there was very little being written that appeared on Twitter about the history of technology - my primary interest.

I'm calling a halt to the experiment. If I see something particularly relevant, I will pass it on but I would rather spend my time developing my own ideas than re-Tweeting someone else's work.  So if you are one of my 50 or so followers, thanks for following. I hope that by focusing on my own ideas, I will add more value to the conversation. I will still put items up from time to time but I won't be as focused on it as I have been in the last couple of months.

This experiment leads me to ponder how much time is used up in general with little to show for it.  The constant scanning of Twitter, Facebook, Google +, let alone email, has lead to a huge loss of human productivity. I know there are those who would argue that the connectivity leads to innovation. Sometimes, it probably does. Most of the time, it is lost energy. I also realize that this sounds like the kind of argument someone from my generation, i.e., older, makes about the way young people live their lives - lives connected via their iPhones and computers to their friends and working colleagues.  I understand that I don't understand, but I will still argue for less distraction and fragmentation and for more focus and integration. It is impossible for anyone to keep up with the ever-growing amount of data out there on the web.  It seems to me that figuring out what you are passionate about and pursuing it with as much energy as you can muster is still the formula for making the world a better place.

So here's to focus! May it re-emerge into the mainstream of our daily lives.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Amtrak Video

I took a video class this fall and I had to put together a little video on something that interested me. I made a (very) short little story about the Amtrak trains that run through the small North Carolina town I call home. Hope you like it.