Either you’ve got it or you don’t
Your editorial (“Trying to be innovative is like trying to be tall,” Sept. 23) succinctly boils down to one page what I have seen in my entire career, so far.
I have worked for a number of major blue-chip corporations. In one, I recall an old timer and a very senior engineer remarked that, “Eventually the clerks take over.” So true.
I don’t overtly try to be creative, but I have many patents, including foreign patents, with my name on them. (Most are owned by former employers.) Typically, I have been hired based on my impressive credentials, and the companies were hard up for technical help. But no matter what I was hired for, before long I would be shunted to a position to solve product, process, or development problems.
Unconsciously, I would see a half dozen ways to solve a given problem, so we would pick one and go with it. Then my employer would go for a patent to protect its intellectual property.
To your list of creative qualities, I would add one more: sleep disturbances. My sleep doctor told me that the evidence was anecdotal, but they are finding that children with ADD are helped once sleep disturbances are identified. Apparently, after being treated for sleep apnea and getting a good night’s sleep, ADD folks have fewer problems with impulsiveness, rash behavior, and other characteristics.
I was middle-aged before I was diagnosed with ADD. Also, a few years later, at the insistence of my children, I was sleep tested. I was stopping breathing 60 times an hour, on the average. Apparently, I had never had a good night’s sleep up to that time.
If I could push a button and change the past and make my apnea go away, I wouldn’t, because I wouldn’t want to risk losing my God-given imagination for finding a better way to do things.
George H. Morgan
I agree with your points on innovation. In every field there are only a handful of innovators who stand out from the crowd like Da Vinci, Beethoven, Matisse, Albert Einstein, and Jimi Hendrix. As a part-time illustrator, I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what made well-known illustrators great, thinking somehow I would blossom into my own unique style by studying theirs. Instead, I was becoming a pale imitator. I see the same thing as an engineer when we benchmark competitors to “think outside the box” and try to generate new ideas. But if everyone is benchmarking each other, creativity can stagnate.
Innovators also need sponsors to get their ideas off the ground: a gallery owner for an artist, a publisher for a novelist, or a manager with a budget for an innovative engineer. Who knows how many hidden innovators are already in companies waiting for someone to recognize them and nurture their growth?
You are correct in stating that some people are naturally more innovative than others, but you do a great injustice in suggesting that training in innovation cannot be beneficial. Mozart was born with talent, but he still had to practice and train to become the great musician that he was. Usain Bolt, the three-time world champion and Olympic gold-medal sprinter, was born with athletic genes, but without training, he would not have become the fastest man in the world. Yes, I will never compose like Mozart or run like Bolt, but if I trained in music or athletics, I would get better at them. A person’s particular level of skill in anything, from music to athletics to innovation, is a combination of both nature and nurture. What ever a person’s natural innovation skill level is, it can be improved by training. A case in point is Samsung. Samsung has steadily crept up to now be the number two patenter in the world (IBM is number one). They now file around 100 patents per week. It’s no accident. Their CEO made a deliberate effort to improve their level of innovation by training (in TRIZ). And they have succeeded. Investing in innovation training is worthwhile. Its a shame to discourage companies from doing so.
It is a mistake to equate patents with innovations, something we discovered back when we had a column on new patents. Large numbers of them are taken out to protect against competitors making natural extensions to a company’s existing products. Many times the attitude seems to be: patent first and let someone else try to prove the underlying invention is not something obvious to someone working in the field. — Leland Teschler
I read your editorial on training for innovation and I agree that such training is snake oil. One thing large companies have done to nurture innovation is to provide local cottage industries so that if they do employ some innovative (and probably sloppy) people, they can be separated from the herd and allowed to do some creative stuff. The Lockheed Skunk Works is a good example. And there are other places where a similar approach has worked. Westinghouse, for example, once had an R&D center that came up with some truly wonderful devices and concepts And many Silicon Valley innovations have allegedly come about in this way. But these kinds of locations are hard to manage and even harder to evaluate. And they are always on the chopping block whenever some bean counter is looking some costs to cut.
Another approach for handling creative types is to segregate them and have them report only to the boss until their ideas are mature enough to turn loose on the market. I know an engineer with 30 patents who worked well that way although it creates some envy. Oddly the ones who seem to resent innovation the most bitterly are the ones who wouldn’t recognize an original idea.
I think you can select, staff, and manage for innovation, but you’re going to have to settle for born inventors, not try and train for it.
Clifford H. Campen
It appears that those considered predisposed to be innovative have at least two traits in common. One, they are unconventional thinkers or think out of the box. Two, they are nonconformists. I fail to see how someone who can’t think out of the box can possibly teach someone else to think out of the box. As far as nonconformity goes, I know of no company that has nonconformity at the top of their list as a desirable trait in their employees. So it likely won’t be taught, even if it can be.