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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.

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