VIEWS: Fostering Innovation

Dispatch from SSC Intern Kang Chang

Innovation has become the name of the game.  Competitive advantage is being created through companies that are able to foster and employ creative, new ideas.  But, as a manager, how do you create a culture of experimentation while protecting the bottom line?  Scott Cook of Intuit, notes that managers will have to diverge from the management they were taught and: 

  • Enable collaboration by people with diverse perspectives on a problem
  • Respect the fact that creativity thrives in situations where there is slack and redundancy.
  • Rethink job design and incentive systems in light of what really motivates creativity: intellectual challenge and public affirmation.
  • Manage as though we expect creativity from everyone -- not just isolated "lone geniuses"

This advice might come as relief to managers who might take it upon themselves to create new ideas for the organization.  So the question becomes, is there any evidence suggesting good ideas can come from all but the Newton’s, Bell’s and da Vinci’s of the world?   

Certainly. In fact, there is a company that dedicates itself to brainstorming a wide-variety of marketable ideas and inventions.  Intellectual Ventures employs a renowned staff of scientists and engineers and calls on their collective creativity to fuel invention in the technological fields of software, semiconductors, networking, medical devices, and more. 

Malcolm Gladwell writes in The New Yorker that inventions commonly have been “invented” simultaneously, by different people and at different times.  The phenomenon is called, “multiples”.  A list of a hundred and forty-eight major scientific multiplies has been complied by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas in 1922.  Some of these include:

  • Color photography being invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. 
  • Logarithms were invented by mathematicians in Britain and Switzerland. 
  • Even telephone technology was being developed at the same time by Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell

If we know that creative ideas can be cultivated, or at least do not depend on a ‘lone genius’, it may be helpful for employees and managers to be aware of common traits of innovators.   

Harvard Business Review’s contributing editor Bronwyn Fryer has a Q&A with Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen, leaders of “Innovators’ DNA”. Dyer and Fryer surveyed 3,000 creative executives, conducted 500 individual interviews and found there are five “discovery skills” that distinguish these CEOs as innovative.  They are: 

  • Associating:  The cognitive skill allowing people to make connections across seemingly unrelated topics, problems, and ideas. 
  • Questioning:  Ability to ask questions that challenge the status quo and open up the bigger picture.
  • Closely observe details:  Especially observing details in people’s behavior.
  • Ability to experiment:  Continually trying new experiments and discovering new ideas. 
  • Networking:  Creating connections with those they may have little in common with, but from whom they can learn.   

Read the full HBR blog here.