As mentioned in last Thursday's blog posting of Jon Pittman's review of Standing on The Sun, Jon is our VP of Corporate Strategy and Engagement - reporting to the CTO. Jon is also a Lecturer at the Haas School of Business of the University of California at Berkeley. Jon recently shared his views about innovation.
In Bill O'Connor's interview with Carl Bass, CEO Carl Bass said that innovation comes from people, not culture or process. Fair enough. That is a position taken by many, including Fred Brooks, author of the software engineering classic, The Mythical Man Month. Fred was the designer of the IBM 360 operating system (seems quaint to even think about that), and he attributed successful innovation to the idea of conceptual integrity. He said that conceptual integrity must come from one mind - or at least a small number of resonating minds. Carl's Apple example illustrates this quite well: the source of Apple's breakthrough innovations has been a relatively small number of like-minded designers and innovators, while the vast majority of Apple's employees execute superbly and innovate incrementally.
If we accept the proposition that great innovation comes from great innovators, where do great innovators come from? This is an important question for educators, large successful businesses, and governments. While buying small innovative companies and hiring an elite cadre of innovators works for entrepreneurial ventures and the occasional exceptional large company like Apple, creating innovation at scale and in a repeatable fashion requires the development of innovators. This brings us to the nature vs. nurture argument: are innovators born or bred? There is a popular meme, promoted by Malcolm Gladwell that you can get good at anything with 10,000 hours of practice. There is some truth to that idea. Anyone can probably achieve a high degree of competence at innovation - or anything else - with 10,000 hours of deliberate, focused, practice. Truly exceptional performance, however, may also require some innate talent. For example, if you are completely unable to carry a tune, even 10,000 hours of focused practice is probably not going to turn you into an exceptional singer; and this same dynamic is true for many other skills and abilities, including, we can posit, innovation. Therefore, educators, business leaders, and governments can and should become good at identifying, selecting, and nurturing innate talent. That "nature + nurture" combination can produce exceptional innovators.
So what ingredients foster innovation?
Optimistic outlook. Innovators have a fundamentally optimistic outlook. Jeanne Liedtka, a professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia1, found that the one characteristic that defined successful entrepreneurs (i.e. innovators) both in startups and large organizations, was an optimistic outlook on life. Innovators see life as a learning journey and are willing to try stuff, fail, learn from it, adapt, and try again. Those that were less successful innovators see life as a test and try to maximize certainty and minimize risk and failure. Thus, they tend to try nothing new. The interesting thing about the optimistic/journey outlook is that successful innovators are also, at the same time, usually dissatisfied with the status quo. They believe that the world can be a better place. While at first this seems contradictory, it is actually a sign of optimism, because successful innovators are optimistic that the world can be a better place and confident that they can effect change. (Two good examples of this are Peter Diamandis' book Abundance and the recent Cage Match @ TED where Carl Bass and Peter Diamandis argued for the optimists' point of view.)
Curiosity and breadth of interests and experience. Innovation often comes from the unexpected spark of ideas from two disparate places coming together. Author Matt Ridley refers to this as "Ideas Having Sex." To increase the gene pool for innovation, it helps to have as broad a perspective as possible. That can be done by reading widely, attending conferences - particularly those in a new field - cultivating relationships with others different from yourself, and travelling. Innovators are intellectually curious and seek out new knowledge and new experiences. The often create mash-ups of ideas that, in turn, beget new ideas and new approaches. Great innovators create fertile ground for new ideas and enrich their idea gene pool through their exposure to lots of diverse ideas, experiences, and people.
User perspective. Innovation is about getting an idea (i.e. an invention) deployed in a useful fashion. To do so successfully requires understanding the potential users and customers of the idea. Great innovators can stand in the shoes of their users and see issues from their perspectives. They don't just talk to users - they observe and try to deeply understand their needs and challenges. What's more, great innovators try to understand users' unarticulated needs - those needs that, for whatever reason, users have but cannot yet see. To do so requires keen insight about users. All too often, would-be innovators become enamored with the idea and the means of implementing the idea without understanding the two most important aspects of innovation: the user/customer, and the experience we're trying to give them.
Systems approach. Successful innovation requires a systems approach. The innovator cannot just look at the idea narrowly, but must understand its overall context. Eliel Saarinen, the famous Finnish architect once said: "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context: a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan." Successful innovators understand context and systems, and that innovation requires an understanding of the various elements of the problem and the relationships between them. It requires a holistic understanding and perspective.
Prototyping culture. Innovators test and refine their ideas through prototyping. They create representations of the idea to both better understand the idea and test it with users. They try to fail quickly, learn as much as possible from their failures, and try again. Prototyping is related to the optimistic outlook mentioned above. Great innovators know that they cannot get it right the first time; that they need to try, fail, learn, try again, and repeat iterating until they get it right. Prototypes are a great way to show users a potential solution and get the kind of feedback that leads to insights. It is important to not just prototype the technical solution, but all of the elements of the solution - the business model, distribution, support, etc.
Interdisciplinary teamwork. Problems of any scale require multiple people, each with different perspectives and expertise. One of the challenges in larger innovation problems is to make sure those perspectives are integrated into a coherent whole. In a sense, interdisciplinary teamwork is a systems approach for the innovation process. It is important that a team mesh its various perspectives and use the power of the differences in those perspectives to create a great solution. This element is related to curiosity and depth of experience. A strong interdisciplinary team leverages the experiences and perspectives of all of the team members.
Persistence. Innovation is hard work, with lots of setbacks and disappointments. Autodesk Fellow, Tom Wujec, says that innovation projects must go through a period of "unhappiness" before reaching that "aha" moment of a successful solution. Avoiding or delaying this unhappiness (or uncertainty and doubt) actually derails the process of reaching a successful solution. Knowing that this is part of the process and being able to persevere until reaching that "aha" moment is a hallmark of successful innovators.
The astute design-oriented reader might notice that these ingredients are quite similar to the notion of "design thinking" that Carl dismissed as a "goofy idea" in his interview. While I share Carl's skepticism about the term "design thinking"2, I actually think the underlying concepts are quite valid. To those of us educated as designers (architects, graphic designers, industrial designers, engineers) these are familiar concepts that were the fundamental building blocks of our education. Designers certainly don't have a special claim on these elements, because they are also taught to entrepreneurs and innovators of all types. The reason the term design thinking is polarizing is that it implies that "designers" have an exclusive lock on a special kind of thinking. That is not true, although it is true that design education - often more than other kinds of education - focuses more explicitly on these elements. If we are to develop a truly innovative economy, education, in general, will need to focus more on these elements.
I absolutely agree with Carl that innovation is driven by people, not process or culture. The mistake many organizations make is to try to put innovation processes or cultures in place without the right people. That is a recipe for failure (and a target for ridicule). However, there are elements of process and culture that are essential to innovation. For example, if learning from failure and iterating are a part of innovation, then a "failure is not an option" culture will never innovate. Process and culture are enablers for innovation but they are not sufficient, because they just don't work without the right people.
This brings us full-circle back to the question of where we get the right people for innovation. Where do great innovators come from? As an educator3, I have to ask that question. Teaching innovators is more than a selection and nurturing problem. We have to find ways to take all kinds of people and help them be innovative. We do this by teaching the elements above and helping people to practice those elements. In some sense we help them prototype the experience of innovating. We help them to try, fail, learn, and persist. We help them understand users and prototyping, and to think about context and systems. Your typical MBA may never become a great designer or innovator - even after 10,000 hours of practice - but, they can learn to be more innovative, and to understand innovation so that they can be supportive of great innovators. The added bonus is that, every once in a while, a great designer/innovator with extraordinary latent talent comes along. We can then identify and nurture that talent to help them become exceptional innovators who truly make the world a better place.
- Reference The Catalyst, a book by Jeanne Liedtka.
- I once asked David Kelley, Stanford Design professor and founder of IDEO, where the term "design thinking" came from and why the term was so polarizing. With his Stanford Design Professor hat on, Kelley said that they saw design as about more than making products, and had therefore invented a term to express that broad notion. With his IDEO hat on, however, he ignored the second part of the question.
- In addition to my day job at Autodesk I teach Design as Competitive Strategy in the MBA program at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.
Thanks for your thorough discussion of the topic. Technology previews come and go on Autodesk Labs, but our people remain ever innovative.
Growing innovation is alive in the lab