No "I" In Innovation
Originally posted to Changepapers.org on June 3, 2010 by Leslie Boney
In spite of what you might have heard (or thought you saw when you looked at the word), there is no "I" in innovation. But we sure act like there is.
In one of my favorite books, Ripples from the Zambezi, Italian consultant Ernesto Sirolli shares one of his key findings after 30 years of working with rural entrepreneurs: there are some people, he says, who are really good at developing new ideas; others are really good at selling those ideas; and still others are good at keeping up with money. Most people, he says, are good at one or the other. A few people are good at two. But he has never found ANYONE who is good at all three.
But what do most "helpers" do when someone comes to them with an idea for a new company? The FIRST thing we do is to send the person home to write a business plan. We take these people who are passionate about a new way of delivering information or gene therapies or pizzas—these idea people — and erect in front of them what for many is a showstopping barrier, by asking them to turn themselves into a marketer or accountant. When they don't come back, we congratulate ourselves on having weeded out folks who lack passion, or we tell ourselves the idea probably wasn't very good: after all, they didn't come back.
But couldn't it just be that we made them think if they couldn't write a business plan their idea wasn't any good?
We have a mythology in the United States that companies are started by lone geniuses—think Edison, Gates, Jobs—but whenever you look closely enough, you find that the person identified most closely with the idea in fact formed a team to pull it off.
A new report from the National Bureau of Economic Research makes a similar point with regard to scientific discoveries. The report finds that on average, big discoveries are being made by people who are a) older and b) working in teams. Some simple math explains part of what is going on. Each year there are nearly 1 million new academic journal articles published, 90% of them in science and engineering—more than any one person can keep up with. And those are just the formal sources: one estimate suggests that by year's end, the amount of total information we will have to draw on through the Internet will double, and keep doubling—every 72 hours.
That's too much information for any one person to keep up with. But older folks who have more connections and younger folks who have more collaborators have a much better chance of knowing what the dots are and how they connect. And all that means they have a better shot at translating more good ideas into breakthroughs.
Small wonder that nowadays, according to the NBER study, 60% of patents, and 80% of all science and engineering articles, are filed by teams. And when you look at which discoveries rock the scientific world, and are cited by at least 100 other scientists as references for their work, those "home run" papers are four times as likely to be done by teams (for a different way of looking at this issue, see "Clone Desimone")
The world's problems are getting more complicated than ever. There are social and public policy challenges on water, energy, disease, immigration, domestic and global security, farm and manufacturing strategy, how to afford government and what government we want to afford. There are business challenges in drug development, the news business, the declining length of product life cycles, the insecurity of the global supply chain, and a gazillion others. We can't afford, in business or government or education or nonprofits, to pretend that lone geniuses can innovate us out of any of these boxes any more. If they ever could.
But if team innovation is the solution, what are the policies that could get us more of it? Here are three:
1) Universities Create Team Science: Universities need to fully embrace the team approach on two levels. For the science itself, they need to create places where people from different disciplines can run into each other, learn who's working on what, and determine which ideas can inform each other. People creating cool designs for nanoparticles need to have a chance to meet the people trying to turn off mutating cancer cells and then they need to meet the engineers or technologists who can figure out how to deliver a particle to a particular place in the body.
None of those groups has enough time to read all the journal articles in those different fields. But if they had regular forums where people from different disciplines could meet, easy mechanisms that help multidisciplinary innovators raise money to prove concepts, and policies that got them credit toward promotion for working together, you'd see teamwork take off, and the number of "home runs" would look like baseball games during the steroid era. The university has part of the mechanism it needs already in cross-disciplinary institutes, but two big barriers remain: 1) disciplines still look askance if you're a chemist publishing something in an engineering journal, making it harder to get promotion; and 2) the state of NC has spent the past couple of years downsizing institutes in public universities, making it harder for some of the places where sparks are flying to catch fire. Some work to do there.
2) Tech Transfer Offices Make Reese's Cups: Chocolate. Peanut butter. Two great tastes that taste great together. Let's just start assuming that every idea or discovery that has made it through proof of concept at a university is going to need some help before it turns into a product or service that has value — an innovation. It's not that scientists aren't smart; it's that they are much more likely to be great at being scientists than turning discovery in a lab into innovation in the marketplace. Why not just admit that, and see the role of those helping them commercialize scientific innovation as connecting the scientists to teams (probably of nonscientists, or at least scientists with innovation skillsets) who will share the translation of the vision into reality? Scientists need business folks; business folks need scientists. Chocolate. Peanut butter. It's a team!
3) Small Business Consultants Serve as Yentls: Let's ask the professional groups who help innovative small businesses get off the ground, wherever they start, to take on one more function: as yentls, or matchmakers. And let's ask them to arrange threesomes. When someone comes in with a great idea, rather than sending them off to do a business plan, consultants should see as a key job figuring out what the skills and the appetite of the entrepreneur are, then connecting them with others who have the skills the entrepreneur lacks. We need a master talent bank that has a treasure trove of North Carolinians with the ability to manage a company, market a company, do the financials for a company, and we need to be thinking from the start about taking a team approach to getting new companies going. Getting more people involved will require people who are flexible about compensation on the front end, but that's part of the DNA of an entrepreneur. And getting more companies going with a real team in place will give them a better chance at going somewhere.
Innovation has to be a team sport. Innovation policy needs to recognize that and encourage that. If we in North Carolina can figure out how to make it easier to play together, we've got an unfair advantage. And an unfair advantage is just what we need to win.