Innovation To-Do List: Clone Desimone
Originally posted to Changepapers.org on February 2, 2010 by Leslie Boney
My 9-year-old son nearly caused a single car accident this weekend. On the way to a basketball game, he asked the question every Psych-English major parent dreads: "How does chemistry work, Dad?" As someone who hangs out with scientists sometimes during the day, I felt the pressure: I had to get this one right. My initial brain scan revealed only random cobwebs of words and numbers: moles (or was it squirrels?), reagents (or was it princes?), 6.02 x 10 to the 23rd – in other words, nothing useful. And this was not a "Good question! I don't know. Why don't you go look it up?" moment.
In desperation, I came up with this: Elements generally like to hang out together with other elements just like them. It's their natural state. They also naturally can't stand some other elements and will resist any attempts to put them together.
But bring certain groups of elements into the mix, though, and they will pair up naturally. They just fit together. And there are still other elements, that, if you put them in just the right situation, will realize that they really have something to offer each other (an electron, a back rub) and can come together to make something brand new. You may have to add some heat or mood lighting to make it happen, but it works. We talked about some examples. Crisis averted – for now (note to self: if you want a scientist in your family, send the kids to science camp this summer).
Where did that idea come from? It has to be listening to Joe Desimone at a recent meeting. If there was one theme of his remarks, it was that innovation comes out of unnatural alliances. If there was followup, it was that we need to clone Joe Desimone.
Joe Desimone is a faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State, an entrepreneur who has applied his brain to problems in chemistry, medicine, nanotechnology, manufacturing, advanced materials and dry cleaning (yes, dry cleaning), amassing patents (110 so far, with another 120 pending) and new company startups along the way (good news for one of the startups this month: Liquidia Technologies just got another $20 million in investment to do clinical trials on how to target nanoparticles at diseases).
Yes, we need to move beyond Dolly the Sheep and clone people like that. But what we really need to clone is the way he approaches problems -- his way of thinking.
There are three big lessons we can learn from Desimone, lessons we need to replicate in labs and garages, in nonprofits and even government agencies, if our state is to become "the most innovative place in the world."
What Desimone gets is that if you are going to solve problems nobody else has, you need to bring together teams of people nobody else has. For example, when he set out to solve one of the problems he worked on – how do you prevent stents from collapsting post-angioplasty -- his team was not just chemists or physicians, but engineers, large animal specialists and technologists. Each had a different part of the solution, a different way of seeing the world and a different piece of the answer.
Bringing these different sorts of people together doesn't necessarily lead to "kumbayah" moments – sometimes they hate each other -- but it does give you a better shot at "aha" moments. As Desimone notes, "the most fertile ground for innovation lies between fields."
That's the idea behind new spaces like Stanford's Bio-X, an interdisciplinary center for research on bioscience and human health, where founder Jim Spudich, when asked to get rid of the center's eating space to save money, once famously said, "Cancel the laboratories and build the restaurant." He knew it was in the restaurant, where people from different disciplines came together, that true innovation would happen.
And that's the idea behind Nathan Myhrvold's new ideation company, Intellectual Ventures, which routinely locks really smart people in the same room together to develop new solutions to really big problems. It started with a pretty simple premise: as Malcolm Gladwell put it in a recent article, the idea was that "surgeons had all kinds of problems that they didn't realize had solutions, and physicists had all kinds of solutions to things that they didn't realize were problems." http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/05/12/080512fa_fact_gladwell?printable=true#ixzz0eOLKOlMY
John Kao, author of Innovation Nation, and a speaker at last year's NC Emerging Issues Forum, summarized it this way: "The world's toughest problems rarely have clear-cut solutions that can be unlocked by a single discipline."
Bringing together diverse teams works when it comes to innovation. But even the biggest team in the best place is a tiny subset of the rich array of information available in the world. One of the founding notions behind the Internet was that scientists, who historically had to wait months to find out what one another were doing, needed a faster way to share ideas.
The idea, has, ahem, gone on steroids. No longer do you have to wait for a mentor or a faculty member or a textbook to teach you; in more and more fields, more and more information is available to you online. A scientist, or widget maker, or nonprofit head or government agency leader, or an unemployed factory worker in Bear Grass NC now have access to an array of information that is expected, by the end of this year, to double every 72 hours.
And that information enables more people in more places to be in the zip code where innovation – the ability to translate new ideas and technologies into new systems, products and services – can happen.
Innovation can no longer afford to be a solo enterprise. The era of the lone genius is over, if it ever really existed. Physically or virtually, problems increasingly require teams of brains.
But to succeed in the world, especially this lightning-fast-moving, globally-connected, creative-destruction world we find ourselves living in right now, we also need to train our brains differently.
A century ago, poet/author/genius Samuel Coleridge described it this way: "Great minds," he said, between snorts of opium, "are androgynous." Great minds have an ability to bring more than one perspective, more than one way of looking at the world, to the table.
More recently, a whole new set of research and thinking that puts some flesh on the bones of that notion. Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly (author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience), says truly innovative people tend to be "psychologically androgynous." In his research, he's found that "when tests of masculinity/femininity are given to young people, over and over one finds that creative and talented girls are more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers." One clear lesson: my daughter needs to start wailing on her brother and he needs to cry about it. But I think there's more to it than that.
If we want North Carolina to be the most innovative place in the world, we need to produce more of what Daniel Pink – coming to the Emerging Issues Forum next week – describes in his boundary-crossing book A Whole New Mind – as "boundary crossers," who develop "expertise in multiple spheres…speak different languages, and …find jobs in the rich variety of human experience." These people "reject either/or choices and seek multiple options and blended solutions. They lead hyphenated lives filled with hyphenated jobs and enlivened by hyphenated identities. They help explain the growing ranks of college students with double majors – and the proliferation of academic departments that dub themselves ‘interdisciplinary.'"
It's not theory; it works, says Nicholas Negroponte of MIT: "Many engineering deadlocks have been broken by people who are not engineers at all. This is because perspective is more important than IQ. The ability to make big leaps of thought is a common denominator among the originators of breakthrough ideas. Usually this ability resides in people with very wide backgrounds, multidisciplinary minds and a broad spectrum of experiences."
For North Carolina to become dramatically, relentlessly, more innovative, we need all three elements: 1) more interdisciplinary places where great minds can take on great big problems together – two prime spots are in universities and private companies; 2) better access to more information for more people – we can help that by continuing to improve high speed access for everyone; and 3) more people with boundary-crossing minds that can make connections, synthesize some of that glut of information, see synergies that nobody else sees – we can grow them by emphasizing problem-solving approaches to education and rehabilitating liberal arts studies.
But back to chemistry. We won't get any of that just by hanging out with elements who look and think like us. We need some encouragement to get out of our comfort zones and let ideas collide until they create new innovations. If we get it right, the next generation is going to have a brand new set of answers to the question: "How does chemistry work?"
How do we create spaces where ideas can collide? How do we grow people who can sort through the information morass and find answers? What needs to change about education for us to raise up more boundary crossers?