Based on evaluation of the interviews, the project committee determined particular skills and attributes, experiences, and environments that contribute to successful innovation. Workshop participants then considered these lists and elaborated on them. Dwayne Spradlin called for casting the net wide when seeking to promote innovation and find innovative solutions:
I think we do all of the bright, creative, inventive people out there a disservice by trying to find reasons to deny that they are innovative. I also think that we create a mindset that only certain people or organizations are capable of innovation, and in so doing, we’re actually building social and institutional structures that have their own kind of elitism to them. Innovation comes from everywhere. We need to tap every person and the entire globe to find innovative solutions to the most difficult problems we have.
Innovator and entrepreneur Anoop Gupta concurred and drew on his own experience to illustrate the point: “I think everybody can be innovative. I think it is some combination of intrinsic abilities and the environment. Several successful innovators in Silicon Valley have come from different parts of the world and might have not even thought of innovation in their home countries. We came to Silicon Valley, and suddenly all of us are innovating and starting companies. So, environment matters a lot, but does that make everyone equally innovative? I think the basic upbringing and work ethic also matter a lot. For example, is drive the same in everybody? Everybody is not the same, even in one environment.”
This chapter presents the specific factors that contribute to innovation, complemented by apposite quotations and observations from the interviewees and workshop participants. The factors are listed separately, but there is constant interplay among them and their nature or influence can change.
FIGURE 4-1 Factors that contribute to the success of innovators.
While it is commonly accepted that innovators have certain skills that have made them successful, this study also focused significantly on understanding how they obtain those skills. Accordingly, a new framework for factors that influence the success of innovators has been developed (Figure 4-1). It captures the interplay between skills, experiences, and environments as fundamental to the success of innovators. In general, environments provide experiences and these experiences enhance or develop the skills of the innovators.
It should be noted that the following lists of skills and attributes, experiences, and environments are not necessarily exhaustive. Indeed, during the first breakout session at the workshop, participants were asked for their ideas about elements missing from each list; these discussions are presented at the end of each section. Furthermore, it is important to understand that interpreting these categories as a whole, rather than as discrete components, will provide the greatest understanding of the factors that influence the success of innovators.
Certain skills and attributes were repeatedly mentioned by the interviewees as contributing to their success as innovators. Although they are examined individually, skills were often discussed as part of a collection of factors that contribute to successful innovation, each of which may fuel or depend on another. Some of these characteristics may be perceived as innate, but many participants felt that they can be nurtured by educational programs.
When asked to think about the skills and attributes that contributed to their success, the interviewed innovators cited
- dissatisfaction with the status quo,
- intense curiosity,
- the ability to identify serendipitous moments,
- willingness to take risks and to fail,
- knowledge of their field,
- the ability to identify good problems/ideas,
- the ability to work at the interfaces of disciplines, and
- the ability to sell an idea.
Being creative was considered fundamental to innovation. The interviewed innovators generally agreed that some form of creativity is necessary for, and enables, innovation and entrepreneurship. At the workshop, participants similarly noted the necessity of creativity for invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
According to Ryan Bailey, “I think you can be creative without being innovative, but it would be hard to be innovative without being creative.” KT Moortgat described creativity as “the ability to think about the world in new ways, thinking from a clear, open perspective. It involves thinking de novo, and somehow leveraging historical or existing solutions, without being encumbered by them.”
Some innovators considered innovation and creativity synonymous, viewing the exercise of creativity as having a useful purpose. To Prashant Jain, it is natural to think of being innovative as being creative, because “you may not be creating anything tangible, but in the process of even creating new information, you’re being innovative. Even that—creating new knowledge or information—is innovation.”
Rodney Mullen mused that the value of creativity is in unhindered intuitive thinking without worrying about the result, and innovation is the next step in which creative effort is blended with a sense of purpose. He explained it this way:
When I talk about creativity, I think of just that, of throwing yourself into no-man’s land and hoping to see and feel what tracks, what sticks together at an intuitive level, and just to untether and go with it. It doesn’t matter; you’re not even looking for a result, because at that stage you just get anxious and will end up going to what’s already been done rather than diving into what could be. . . . The next step, after you get things to stick together, is to get the sense of the broader sort of movements you have now created, then you start to go around and you look at things embedded in the natural environment that can combine with what you feel is beginning to work—context, shape, and content. How can I project it onto something broad where it will fit? . . . That is innovation.
Yo-Yo Ma cited conditions that influence creativity, such as a “collaborative spirit,” which he said has energy of its own that is fueled by curiosity as well as flexibility. Imagination, or the sense of possibility, also plays a central role in the creative process.
In terms of creativity, I think there are three values that precede innovation. The first one is collaboration, and this is not like I’m teaching or you’re teaching; we’re teaching and learning at the same time. You say “Guess what I found?” “What did you discover?” Then you’re immediately sharing, and that I think leads to a kind of curiosity that leads to a kind of flexibility in thinking, because I’m opening myself to your world, you’re opening your world to me. Curiosity is the second value. The collaborative spirit is leading to a kind of energy of its own, curiosity, and the more curiosity there is, the more you have the ability to imagine. Imagination is the third value, because imagination is obviously required in any form of innovation. You have to be able to sense that “Oh, this could be possible,” or you could just do things blindly and hit on it, but then if you don’t have the imagination to see the reality of something that’s happened, you don’t recognize that that innovation has taken place.
DISSATISFACTION WITH THE STATUS QUO
Innovators usually are dissatisfied with the status quo and willing to challenge it. In Tim Cook’s words, “Innovation requires not being satisfied with the status quo, almost an individual that’s never satisfied, a perfectionist.”
David Hornik contends that innovators get frustrated when they encounter problems and constantly think about how to improve everything they encounter in their daily lives and “the fact that people are not making it better, and so they see lots and lots of opportunities to make the world a better place, and they envision ways in which to do it.”
As an artist, Jad Abumrad characterized innovation as a blend of the positive feeling of creation and the negative feeling of being disgusted with the status quo: “I think innovation might be as much a frustration and a disgust with the ordinary or status quo as it is some sort of positive longing for what could be.”
Intense curiosity is a hallmark of successful innovators. “I think a very intense curiosity is key [for innovation],” said Tim Cook, who added that “Curiosity can be very broad. It’s ‘How does something work? How does someone think?’ Curiosity in many ways is a ‘How?’ [rather than a ‘What?’]. I think it’s hard to teach curiosity, but I think you can give things to encourage it. I don’t think you can get there with a course, I think that would be the wrong approach, but I think you could do a lot with the environment. . . . I think my underlying state as a person has a curious foundation in it, and so that probably helps, but I do think the environment heavily influences curiosity.”
People who are curious tend to be observant of new ideas, concepts, or situations and associate them with something else they’ve learned and take advantage of serendipitous situations. Jack Hughes described his own experience, associating curiosity with serendipity: “Your eye gets caught by something while you’re working on some-
thing, or you remember something from the past and then the opportunity presents itself; I think serendipity is more a function of . . . a general curiosity.”
Curiosity also helps the innovator overcome the fear of asking a “bad” question. Ivan Seidenberg said, “[I am curious] and was never driven by any sort of closet fear that I would look dumber; little kids are curious, and they have no fear of asking a ‘bad’ question.”
ABILITY TO IDENTIFY SERENDIPITOUS MOMENTS
Serendipity plays an important part in innovation. It may be loosely perceived as luck or chance, but the innovators agreed that serendipity results from acute observation and the ability to take advantage of those moments. Aaron Koblin put it this way: “Life is about setting ‘luck traps’; nobody’s lucky, but luck is happening constantly all around us, and some people see it and some don’t. I think the idea of serendipity may be more about watching for these opportunities than it is about some cosmic property.” And as one workshop participant said, the more you know, the more luck you are likely to have.
While being attentive to serendipitous moments, it is important to also remain honest about what the facts are. Alyssa Panitch cautions that “part of the ability to be innovative is really to always pay attention to what the data is telling you and to not read into the data what you want it to be.” She credits her mentors in science for teaching her this “good science” principle of “listening” to one’s data.
Paul Camuti also said his education contributed enormously to his ability to handle serendipity. Although he is not currently doing traditional engineering work, he draws on what he learned in his undergraduate studies: “I have learned rapid problem solving and analytics. The stress of an engineering undergraduate education and the rigor of applying analytics really is something that I use every day, and I think that that applies to the moments of serendipity. There’s not an idea that comes up that you don’t try and, as we say here, rack and stack. ‘Is this good or bad? Where would it apply? How well would it apply?’”
Others felt that the US education system does not prepare its students to look for or take advantage of such moments. One reason for this, according to Tim Cook, is that education is “largely too formal, too predictable, too planned, too regimented, too routine.” Franz Aliquo extended this characterization to life in general: “Life is really built to make you ignore those serendipitous moments . . . to stick with a predetermined path instead of noticing these weird things that are happening on the periphery. . . . I learned to overcome it the hard way by noticing the various streams of life and having to select those that were most appropriate for me.”
Innovators are commonly viewed as risk takers who pursue endeavors knowing that there is a chance of failure. A number of the interviewed innovators commented on the utility—and even the necessity—of failure. They are not afraid of or deterred by failure and they accept and manage it as a part of their work, learning from it and moving on.
In fact, according to discussants at the workshop, innovators may not see themselves as risk takers, instead approaching their endeavors as an adventure or challenge, associated with fun or enjoyment, or a calculated risk to be confronted and eliminated, and focusing on the risk/reward ratio in which the reward outweighs the risk. Failure then becomes an opportunity for learning, again offsetting the perception of risk.
There’s a big difference between encouraging failure and discouraging fear of failure. The really big wins, from an innovation perspective, are often risky and uncertain. You can’t tell if you’re going to succeed or fail when you start. You have to build and be unafraid of failing on the other side. You don’t have to like failure, but in order to get the big win, you cannot fear it.
– Regina Dugan
David Agus echoed Regina Dugan’s comments: “you have to figure out a way to really encourage risk taking. To me that’s everything.”
Andy Walshe talked about the importance of distinguishing between perceived risk and actual risk: “We need to differentiate the perceived level of risk versus actual risk. If the perceived risk is much higher than the actual risk, it provides for good training opportunities as long as the difference is not so great that it causes the person to ‘freeze’ or lose the ability to learn from the situation. If the perception of risk is low but the actual risk is high, then the results can be catastrophic. In our business this is when people get hurt or killed. High performers are ‘masters of risk.’”
At the same time, the innovators cautioned against blind acceptance of failure, which could lead to experimenting for the sake of experimenting. Ivan Seidenberg clarified: “There’s a lot of books written about ‘Well, you’ve got to fail five times to succeed once,’ and I [fear that] it creates a negative atmosphere in that you get a big group together, like a big company with a lot of people, and you end up with a false focus on experimentation for experimentation’s sake because someone wrote a book and said failure is a good thing. . . . A great [innovator or innovative] company does both, meaning that they experiment, fail, and invent, and that failure is not celebrated as a symbol of the innovative spirit if the results are absent.”
Acknowledging the value of the ability to manage risk and encouraging risk taking is a significant challenge in academic, social, and professional environments. In the words of Bernard Meyerson, “the biggest challenge [in educating to innovate] is getting people to buy into taking risk. The single biggest impediment I found in large companies, particularly, is that they don’t tolerate risk particularly well. Put another way, if you miss your quarter’s numbers, you’re fired.”
Every successful innovator has passion—an intense, compelling desire and enthusiasm—to make a change. Passion is also linked to motivation, curiosity, and the willing-
ness to take risks and be persistent in one’s endeavors. It may even be indicative of an individual’s capability to innovate: Passion motivates a person to do hard work, and, according to John Hennessy, is one of the distinctions between “successful [innovators] and smart people.”
Andy Walshe said that having passion for one’s pursuit buffers the emotional impact of failure and helps an innovator persevere in the face of failure. In his words, “[If you are not passionate], the failures can beat you down pretty quickly, and you’ll revert back to . . . the safer and usually more conservative approach.” Part of the innovative process therefore involves assessing one’s level of personal interest in a project, which may ultimately affect the success of the project.
It is also important to balance passion with reason. In discussing what he looks for in potentially innovative job candidates Jad Abumrad explained, “I would look for a certain kind of relentless, obsessive unease, but there is also something in [successful innovators] where they are relentless but they are also infinitely flexible, and it’s a bit of a paradox, really.”
Innovators have a deep understanding of the basic principles of their field, including experiential and/or technical knowledge. For example, to innovate technologically, “you must begin with a comprehensive knowledge of science and engineering,” said Robert Fischell. In addition, Robert Metcalfe suggested that innovators should be able to answer the question, “What do you know that nobody else knows about this problem?” He added that “there’s the problem, but then the innovation must stem from some secret knowledge, some insight, and some different way of looking at it.”
Alan Heeger added that the depth of the knowledge should be such that “you get to a point where you have almost an intuition about what is right and what is wrong. If something is not right, you can smell it. After you have that core of knowledge and experience then you can branch out and learn other techniques, learn other experiments.” He said that the right plan in educating is to “have a student start out on a very focused area, but before getting his or her degree try to work on something else.”
Beyond in-depth knowledge in their field, innovators must know their capabilities and limitations. In the absence of such self-awareness, the innovator risks not being able to choose the most promising directions. Rodney Mullen values such self-efficacy and fears that, in its absence, the innovator risks not being able to choose the most promising directions: “if I am looking for the most innovative guy that has a future, [I would] ask ‘Does he understand the skills he has, his weaknesses?’ Choosing what not to do is unbelievably important, but by its nature is overlooked as a skill set.”
ABILITY TO IDENTIFY GOOD PROBLEMS/IDEAS
The interviewees cited the importance of the ability to identify a good problem. But they acknowledged that identifying a good problem is not a straightforward process. In the words of David Morse, “There is an art to innovation—knowing how to recog-
nize things that have a chance of becoming a commercial success and what it takes to achieve that (practical) success.” Robert Langer concurred: “I’m not sure that there’s a single answer to that [how to identify good problems/ideas], and I don’t know that there’s a simple way to say that a certain idea is absolutely a good idea. It’s kind of like beauty—a good idea is just like ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’”
Even as they acknowledged that identifying and defining problems is not an exact science, interviewees provided important guidelines for doing so:
- Spend a considerable amount of time coming up with, thinking about, and defining the problem.
- Follow your instinct/intuition.
- Choose problems based on their impact on humanity and identify where there is a need.
- Identify actionable problems—those that are practical and have solutions that can be executed.
- Target areas where there is less activity.
- Gather input from those the innovation is meant to help.
- Investigate failure and ask yourself, “Is there a path that will lead to success?”
- Identify interesting problems, ones that you feel passionate about.
- Know when to quit or change direction.
ABILITY TO WORK AT THE INTERFACES OF DISCIPLINES
Innovators’ ability to “connect the dots” across disciplines was repeatedly cited by both the interviewees and the workshop participants, especially as innovations seem to happen at the interfaces of disciplines. Breakout session discussants pointed out that bringing a new skill set to a field can yield a different perspective.
According to David Morse, “[technological] innovation is the ability to recognize the link between some sciences to fill a function of some sort.” It follows, then, that “innovators are much more cross-disciplinary than just deeply solid technically in one area,” said Anoop Gupta.
Innovators are people who are real misfits in their field, because they can see across borders, they can see across borders of discipline, geography, all of that. They’re the ones who can make those disparate connections between, say, DNA and a hard drive, and say “Let me make a DNA hard drive.”
– Nina Tandon
According to Michael Frenkel, interdisciplinary teams—“people with broad and diverse areas of expertise and variety of skills working together”—are one of the main reasons the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been able to solve complex problems.
Working in interdisciplinary teams not only allows for the exchange of knowledge and development of ideas, it also, implicitly, reduces risk. As Kalyan Handique put it, “If you work in an interdisciplinary team, you have more chance that you will come up with something valuable because there are checks and balances, you cover each other’s bases, and you are trained to do something that’s not just in one area of expertise.”
Alyssa Panitch said that she is most innovative when she is on the fringes of what she knows and what she does not know well, and that she is less constrained by the “dogma of the disciplines” when she is operating in this space. She calls herself a “jack of all trades” and said, “I always argue that I know just enough chemistry and know just enough biology to be dangerous, and I think that that’s true.”
Frans Johansson considered a different angle, positing that work in a “promising” intersection may not yield successful results because it is “reactive”—someone has already identified the area as promising. The real challenge, he said, is in predicting “what the new powerful intersection is”:
I believe you end up in trouble when you try to figure out where the most fruitful intersections are at the moment. Let’s say that you are looking at virtual reality technology on one hand and medical school on the other hand, and working on long-distance surgery seems fruitful. But people are already doing that, so what type of information are you using to figure out what a fruitful intersection would be? By definition it almost has to be based on what is already known to be a fruitful intersection. That does not mean that there aren’t opportunities there, but you are still basing it on an experience that people are already having. So it could be fruitful, but the likelihood of you, in this instance, truly breaking new ground drops because others are already exploring these intersections.
The more interesting intersections, in my experience, are those that are unexpected.
– Frans Johansson
Interdisciplinary work is so important that Alan Heeger wants to be remembered as an interdisciplinary scientist: “I really think that I have great influence on modern science in that way [as an interdisciplinary scientist]. . . . These days my students come to me with data that they obtained through interactions with colleagues that I didn’t even know were going on. They often publish with those colleagues, sometimes with me, sometimes without. So we are known here [at University of California, Santa Barbara] for our interdisciplinary approach to science. I’ll take some credit for that.”
ABILITY TO SELL AN IDEA
The ability to communicate one’s ideas in a clear and inspiring way is increasingly important in the growing global information economy, and is crucial for innovators, who are often engaged in team activity. The ability to sell an idea is tightly linked to both the ability to secure funding for research or development of the idea and, as applicable, the transition from idea to implementation. In the words of Mark Randall,
“if you can’t recruit great people to your cause, you’re probably not going to succeed as an innovator.”
Most successful innovators that I know are very good at explaining their ideas. There may be some people that are really good at coming up with ideas but really bad at explaining them, but those people usually don’t get very far. Because . . . for an innovation to be successful, you’ll need more people to work on it with you; you’ve got to convince them, and it’s very hard to convince if you can’t explain your idea. . . . So I think it is critical to have the ability to be able to at least explain what your idea is and also that it is a good idea.
– Luis von Ahn
Bob Metcalfe agreed that, in contrast to the process of inventing, innovation “involves more people, involves selling your ideas, and the kind of selling that is mostly listening!” Along these lines, being aware of others’ perspectives was commonly cited across the interviews.
Finally, the ability to convey the significance of one’s work to different audiences is crucial. In Karen Kerr’s view, “[It’s important to teach students] to communicate an idea that’s highly technical to a group that isn’t technical.”
FROM THE WORKSHOP: ADDITIONAL SKILLS AND ATTRIBUTES
Workshop participants were encouraged to discuss the findings during the first breakout session and suggest other skills and attributes.
Several participants stressed the importance of the ability to handle uncertainty, which is closely related to the ability to take risks described earlier and the experience of finding and solving open problems described in the next section. The participants explained that innovators must be prepared to do everything right and yet remain stymied in their efforts. Conversely, it was posited that an inability to tolerate uncertainty could motivate innovation, as the drive to seek a solution.
Another trait that recurred in the discussion was persistence. Also cast as “grit,” “street smarts,” “bull-headedness,” and “dogged determination,” this characteristic was associated with the abilities to focus on finding a solution to a problem and to move beyond failure by learning from it.
In addition to persistence, innovators need the courage to pursue an idea no matter what others think, as well as motivation (whether inner or outer directed), faith in their efforts, and the confidence to overcome naysayers. Both persistence and courage are closely related to passion and the ability to take risks and manage failure.
Flexibility was mentioned as a necessary complement to persistence—the ability and willingness to change course during a problem-solving process. Effective innovators are those who demonstrate agility and adaptability to change course and even adjust
“on the fly” when needed. This “paradox” between persistence and flexibility mimics the one between passion and reason as found by the study.
Participants also discussed the capacity to receive and deal with criticism; the ability to decompose a large problem into smaller, more manageable chunks whose solution can lead to bigger results; competitiveness, the desire to be the first to find a solution; self-education, an interest in finding answers for oneself; and pie-in-the-sky imagination.
The interviewed innovators come from a variety of professions and fields—from music to chemistry, skateboarding to communications. While each career path or field of interest may have specific criteria for defining success, the conversations revealed that the road to success was often similarly paved across disciplines. The innovators cited the following experiences as contributing to their innovative abilities:
- interdisciplinary collaborations,
- industrial experience,
- identification and solution of open problems,
- role models, and
- upbringing that nurtures innovation.
Experience working in interdisciplinary teams is crucial, because, as Kalyan Handique said, “that’s what happens when you go to industry, you are trying to create a product that has a lot of elements.” He added that the most valuable aspect of his doctoral education was “the interdisciplinary environment,” and that without it he probably would “have not gained much and would have been of less value to industry.”
[Interdisciplinary collaboration] helps us understand cultures of how biologists operate different from chemists, how engineers view the world differently, how medical doctors work, and so on. That’s really valuable: understanding the significance and having some appreciation. It is also healthy as it can help you see and feel that you’re contributing to something bigger.
– Ryan Bailey
Workshop discussants noted that the members of an interdisciplinary team can expand the abilities of a single innovator by each contributing the skills and knowledge needed for a project.
Collaborative experiences also play a role in self-development. Maria Scileppi reported that “one insight was that I was meeting all of these people and connecting with them, but really I was getting to know myself, and so, it’s counterintuitive, but to know others is to know yourself, and that’s one of the reasons why collaboration is so valuable.”
Several innovators observed that informal cross-disciplinary experiences may be undervalued. David Agus put it this way: “People from different areas get together, and we just sit and talk about a problem. I don’t know in advance what the problem’s even going to be, but it’s those discussions that actually make all of us better, and we’ll bring in a scientist from here and there and just sit down and talk and have those conversations, but we’ve really lost the ability in most science today to have the time to have those discussions.”
Industrial experience can be particularly beneficial for students, providing, for example, an opportunity to develop critical understanding and to identify and work on real problems. George Whitesides said that the single thing he would tell someone who aspires to be an innovator is “you should go off and somehow work with someone who is actively an entrepreneur, who is running [an innovative] company, for a couple of years, even if you have to pay for it yourself.”
Industry experience adds value for everybody. I think it’s a wonderful experience to get into an industrial lab and have an internship experience or in some way get broadened. Even if the person’s whole ambition is to be academic forever, it doesn’t hurt, and it’s not a very big time investment in terms of their overall time in college. I see tremendous learning from interns that we get here [at Corning] every summer.
– David Morse
Some workshop participants argued for practical experience rather than specifically industrial experience, noting that any real-world context can add to the excitement of research and innovation. During the interviews, John Rogers reflected on his doctoral education, and felt “being able to do at least some fraction of your research that has an outcome that people care about, beyond your field of specialty, was an exciting thing.”
Rakesh Agrawal acknowledged the value of industry experiences to his own success: “Industry experience was beneficial to me because it forced me to learn who I am! When I worked there, the very first year, I quickly realized my capabilities, which I don’t think I would necessarily have been able to realize in an academic environment.” Yet, he added, “involving industry in education is good, but really not as important as people often think, because you have to teach students self-learning and if they have it, then they will learn very quickly; it doesn’t matter what situation they go into.”
Ashifi Gogo conveyed the need for coordination between universities and industry on the nature of work assigned to students: “Industry’s involvement in a measured way could be useful. The concern I have is industry may come with a very refined problem that they’re seeking a solution to, and mapping that to a specific base of students who may or may not even want to work on that problem could be challenging.”
IDENTIFICATION AND SOLUTION OF OPEN PROBLEMS
The experience of finding and solving open problems calls on students to define (and redefine) a problem and explore it from different angles. But this experience is not typically part of students’ education.
Schools pose a problem to which you know there is an answer, and the very fact that you know there is an answer changes the way you think about the problem. If you have a problem to which there is no known answer, you actually need to address that problem in a very different way. That’s lacking in the educational system.
– Stuart Parkin
To enable students to gain this experience, Robert Fischell described the following approach:
Break up the class into groups of people to work together as a team, and at the beginning of every week, each team would try to find a problem that there is in the world in some field—in energy, in health care, in computers, or something—and then have each of them be a team saying, “Okay, we found something that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work well. Now let’s work on how we can make something that’s better than that. Let’s think through all the variations, combinations that could make that situation better,” and then that is how a noninnovator could work deliberately on making a new innovation.
Several universities provide extensive opportunities for undergraduates, even as freshmen and sophomores, to conduct research and gain experience looking at open problems and working in teams. The value of this exposure was confirmed by Holden Thorp: “I think one absolutely critical thing [for me] was doing undergraduate research. . . . I just think that’s an incredibly important thing because there are all these kids who don’t really know what research is and don’t have any way of finding out about that.”
John Rogers similarly stressed the importance of opportunities for undergraduates to conduct research: “In our lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we have a super heavy engagement at the undergraduate level. We take anybody who’s interested. . . . My thought is, Let them get into the lab, in a way that avoids making it so constraining or so challenging that they’re going to shy away from it for that reason. Just bring them in and give them a chance. What we do around undergraduate research experiences is different from anything that I’ve seen before, certainly in the scale, probably the style as well.”
The value of mentorship was cited by all the interviewed innovators, and workshop participants concurred that mentorship provided at the right time can make the difference in perseverance and success. Doug Hart said that “Being mentored by really outstanding people was hugely valuable to me. I think it’s one thing to be creative, but to be innovative you have to make that leap into something else, and that leap, I think, is something that needs to be taught, in a way [through mentorship].”
Along with having good mentors, the innovators and workshop discussants cited the importance of being a good mentor. “Find good mentors and be a good mentor yourself” is how Rakesh Agrawal would advise anyone who wants to nurture innovation. Don Sadoway said, “As a good mentor, I wanted to lose snap judgment and condemnatory behavior. It’s really delicate, how to mentor people in a way that holds them to high standards but at the same time doesn’t strip them of self-esteem, doesn’t embarrass them.” It is probably not surprising that a good mentor, according to Richard Tapia, would be one whose mentee can say to him, “You don’t make me feel inferior. You make me feel that I belong. You make me feel like I can succeed. . . .”
Tim Cook mentioned the value of having Steve Jobs as a mentor, emphasizing the importance of observing how Jobs thought rather than just focusing on what he did: “I had an incredible mentor with Steve, and working with him and watching him and seeing how his mind worked was incredible, . . . a lifetime worth of experiences.”
Mentoring, according to Varun Soni, is paramount because any one model of teaching innovation cannot apply to every student:
I think everyone can think innovatively, but some students are more innovative and creative than others. So I think one of the aspects of innovation, from a university perspective, is to be able to identify who has these kinds of innovative orientations and how to best support that. And that, I don’t think, can be scalable. I don’t think we can cut and paste an innovation model that makes sense for all of our innovative students. That, I think, is where mentoring becomes paramount, where individual advisors would be able to identify certain aspects of some students’ work and support those aspects in a different way than that professor might support another innovative idea from a different student, because students are coming at these from different contexts.
Whereas mentors have a direct role in nurturing the innovative abilities of students, role models serve as a source of inspiration and example of success. Mentors can also be role models, but this is not always the case. John Hennessy clarified that “role models clearly are inspiring! You can say, ‘Here’s the office that Larry Page and Sergey Brin had when they started Google,’ and people find that inspiring and think that they could do that.”
Robert Metcalfe colorfully illustrated the point:
You get two things from role models. One is you discover they’re just like you, or worse! Then you really know—“God, if this idiot could invent something, I’m sure I
can!” And then role models show you the steps, like you build something, you write a paper, you study the literature to be sure you’re not duplicating effort, you stand on the shoulders of giants, you look at things from different angles, you combine expertise in a multidisciplinary way, blah, blah, blah, . . . and if you just do that every day, then you start innovating.
To expose students to role models, a number of innovators recommended teaching “history” in the STEM curriculum. According to Michael Frenkel, “You could design a course which you would call ‘The History of Innovation in Engineering,’ and during this course illustrate successes in developing new technology and making them broad-based innovations. And in doing that you could also illustrate the examples of real lives of the people who have been involved, because very often knowledge is being communicated without any connection to the very people who developed it, and that makes it very inhuman. I believe if people have examples of success, they will be in a better position to be successful themselves.”
On the other hand, talk of role models usually focuses on their successes, rarely their failures. But telling the latter can be equally instructive and even inspiring. As Bernard Meyerson put it, “The hardest thing is to kill a program, and the ones we failed to kill are the ones that almost killed us, and so it is extremely valuable to tell people those failure stories. There’s a lot of lessons learned.”
[When I lecture at universities] I start out by saying “I’m not going to tell you how I succeeded, because frankly I don’t know. I can pretend that I know, but I’m just retrofitting success backward onto things; most books written about successful companies are just retrofitting based on what happened. But what I can do is tell you how to fail better, because that I know a lot about.” And then I just talk all about my failures, and a lot of people are like “Wow, we finished 90 minutes with Mark, and he never talked about, you know, these big innovations.” You don’t learn much from those! Those are the random things that happen because you tried so much, and you were able to try so much because you were good at failing.
– Mark Randall
UPBRINGING THAT NURTURES INNOVATION
Many of the interviewees described their lives at home as influential to their innovative capabilities. Sometimes the influence was related to one or both of their parents’ occupations. Amy Salzhauer, for example, attended board meetings with her father as a child, which exposed her to corporate governance. Doug Hart felt that having an artist mother and an engineer father helped him become inventive, which in turn is important to be innovative.
Participants also cited the influence of their parents’ values, some giving weight to the value of education. Dwayne Spradlin recalled his parents finding ways to get his books and lab equipment as a child, despite being relatively poor.
Frans Johansson said his experience growing up in an interracial and multiethnic family contributed to his openness to diversity, despite the fact that the town in Sweden in which he was raised was not very socially diverse.
Spending some of his childhood in the projects of the “worst parts of Brooklyn,” Carmichael Roberts grew up in an environment with few resources. From this experience he learned to be resourceful to create with whatever limited resources were available—and defied the “statistic that there’s no way, if they took a snapshot of that child [me] at that time, I’d be doing what I’m doing now.”
Supportive structures identified as conducive to innovation in childhood are those that allow children to take risks, follow their passion, and think broadly. Agreeing that “you do need to be creative in order to innovate,” Mary Ann Meador was not sure whether one can be taught to be creative or innovative, but she is sure that “you don’t want to do things that will curb their creativity.”
Several innovators described two key characteristics of their childhood activities: having enough time to think and observe, and being able to tinker with things. Successful innovators seem to have had a childhood that was “slow-paced” with lots of time to think and observe.
I’d look at the clouds and think, and I had a lot of summers just not doing much of anything, just sitting around. I read a lot of books once I got interested in reading, but I did not do a lot of experiments, a lot of science or anything like that . . . and I never had a lot of homework. I think it’s a leisurely pace. . . . We hope that people don’t have to come from one-room schoolhouses, but I’m wondering how well people are going to think when they’re multitasking all the time today.
– Robert Dennard
Unstructured time compels children to do something different, something to entertain themselves using the “tools” at their disposal. Doug Hart said, “If you’ve got unstructured time and if you have these toys at your disposal, you go down and you start putting pieces together and you say ‘Gee’—just out of boredom—‘what can I build?’ . . . Boredom can be a wonderful thing!”
There is a concern that today’s kids may be overprogrammed. “You need to have hours to take something apart and put it back together or create new things,” said Holden Thorp, and “kids don’t have that kind of time in the same way anymore.” He said: “My mom ran the community theater in my home town, and there were a lot of things there to tinker with—set pieces that rolled around and the lighting board and sound equipment—so I spent a lot of time early on learning about and fixing all of those kinds of things, and I got interested in music. I was constantly inventing new ways to do multitrack recording on equipment that wasn’t really designed for that.”
Bob Metcalfe advised that when kids are allowed to tinker with things, they should not be punished for their creations (or their failure) nor blamed for it. He recollected: “The wooden raft I built for our summer house broke apart, and my father declared it a failure. He overruled my desire to repair it because he saw that it was a lost cause. [But] there was no punishment. . . . It’s just something that didn’t work out, and so he cut it loose. It was his decision to abandon the project, and I went along, but I have long remembered that I wasn’t blamed for it.”
FROM THE WORKSHOP: ADDITIONAL EXPERIENCES
Asked during the workshop’s first breakout session to discuss the list generated from the innovator interviews and identify whether anything was missing, participants reiterated the importance of failure and, ideally, the experience of trial, error, and failure followed by success. Playfulness was also proposed, together with tinkering and experimenting. These were echoed during the interviews in the context of environments that encourage risk taking and provide freedom to tinker as discussed in the next section.
Environments, both physical and social, are a significant factor in the formation of innovators who have the skills and experiences needed for success. In 1916 John Dewey wrote, “We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment. Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or whether we design environments for the purpose, makes a great difference.”1
“Chance” environments could also include family and country or culture of origin. US culture differs from others in important ways, according to several workshop participants; irreverence, for example, distinguishes US from Asian culture. Indeed, some felt that the American experience as a whole supports innovation. In this context, it is important to note that environments can change by, for example, a move from one country to another. Another participant compared the life of an immigrant to a startup: as an outsider, there seems to be less to lose, the unknown is familiar, taking a chance doesn’t seem as risky.
Interviewees and workshop participants observed that although children enter school full of curiosity, creativity, and other promising skills, the educational environments seem not to encourage but actually discourage the development and enhancement of skills. Academic institutions should design an environment that provides experiences to the students to develop or enhance skills needed to become successful innovators. Guidance, independence, accessibility, flexibility, encouragement, socialization—these are elements of an environment that help students to be innovative.
George Whitesides observed that the best innovative environment takes the form of a social enterprise that helps people do what they want to do. In fact, he recognized
1 Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. Macmillan.
it as more valuable than any particular research activity of his accomplished research and innovation career:
People ask me, “What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve done in your research?” and the answer that I give in my old age is actually a little surprising, which is not so much one area of research relative to another area, but to understand that a research group runs best when you think about it as a social enterprise. By that what I mean is my job is to help very smart people—and most who come to graduate school, or to postdoc, are an amazingly smart group of people. They’ve been screened by the most imaginative systems in the world and they ended up here. So my job is not to recognize and teach [doing research or innovation]—they know what they want to do, but they may not be able to articulate it. The job of the environment is to make it possible for people to do what they want to do . . . and unless you think about it as a social enterprise, you don’t get the benefit of the skills and the diversity of skills that are present.
Environment is more than a class or curriculum; it implies an immersive experience, which is appropriate to the cultivation of an innovative mindset just as ethical thinking and practice cannot properly be contained or taught in a single course.
There are ethics courses, but ethics has to be a part of someone and therefore a part of everything that they do, not something that they do for an hour or whatever. I think innovation is more like that and you want to think more about innovation as an underlying skill and try to sprinkle it through the whole of the curriculum, and really try to get at it from the cultural and the environment point of view, not from some single class that you were teaching. It’s not like teaching economics or calculus or physics; it’s not like that.
Probably the most significant challenge in putting such environments in place was captured by Richard Miller, who asked, “How can you engineer a change so that an existing organization will embrace it?”
The innovators’ thoughts and recollections about environment yielded the most detailed understanding of the types and characteristics of this influence on their lives. Environments that encourage innovation should
- explicitly encourage innovation,
- have physical spaces for free/open/informal discussions,
- facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration,
- encourage following one’s passion,
- place a strong emphasis on the value of education, and
- provide freedom to tinker.
EXPLICITLY ENCOURAGE INNOVATION
John Hennessy described the campus of Stanford University, which is known for its successful innovators, and its effect on students: “Students come in, and it’s fascinating to watch when we do our tours around campus. The tour goes down to the engineering quadrangle, and they say ‘Well, that’s the Jen-Hsun Huang engineering building. He’s the guy that started NVidia. That’s the Jerry and Akiko Yang building. He’s the guy that started Yahoo!’ So they walk around and they’re in this setting where people who have changed the world once lived, and it’s inspiring to young people, they think ‘I can do that too.’ That’s exactly what they think.”
Amy Salzhauer, who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said she could “feel that MIT really values innovation,” in part because innovation was talked about “All the time! All the time!”
Government agencies, too, have environments that foster innovation, as Michael Frenkel explained: “NIST has an institutional culture that has focused on promoting excellence and innovation, and that also creates particular ethical guidelines, particularly for young people when they come, for the art of doing science and engineering right. This seems to be something NIST has known for years—encouraging this type of culture.”
Brian Hinman emphasized the value of such an environment. According to him, you could “take a person who otherwise could be quite innovative and put him into an environment that does not reward and encourage innovation. [That person] could end up not developing to the full potential.”
One of the ways of encouraging innovation, beyond verbalizing it, is by rewarding innovative thinking.
When you’re pursuing truly new, never-been-done-before things, you cannot give up if you encounter a failure along the way. There will always be points of failure along the way. At those points, the organizational participants and their leaders must have steely nerves. We must reward people who take a big swing, even if there’s an initial failure.
– Regina Dugan
HAVE PHYSICAL SPACES FOR FREE/OPEN/INFORMAL DISCUSSIONS
The value of physical spaces for informal discussions in fostering innovation was repeatedly mentioned by the innovators, who felt that the best innovative ideas seem to occur through informal discussions, sometimes over coffee. David Morse elaborated: “Facility ergonomics are important to maximize the cross-pollination of the inventive capacity of an organization: offices, labs, common sharing areas, IT-enabled conference rooms, large gathering areas for open technical reviews and poster sessions.”
The key, according to Anoop Gupta, is in ensuring informality: “I think informality helps. It could be in the office sitting across from a colleague, it could be over coffee,
lunch, on a paper napkin. I think informality and an open mind are conducive rather than ‘forced’ innovation. ‘I shall innovate now!’ It doesn’t happen that way.”
There have to be areas for people, without planning, to meet. For us it’s our lobbies, which essentially are like huge coffee shops. There’s a café and it’s great to eat there, people don’t run out for lunch. Then there is the quad area where people sit outside. It’s in areas like that where it’s a natural, unplanned, serendipitous sort of informal collaboration. And then, if you went into some of our most creative areas, you would find that people sit at a table and have lunch together and sit across from each other on benches, and it’s like your family used to sit at the dining room table. That’s how they discuss and decide things. So I do think that office space, environment, culture—all of these things play heavily in this.
In the planning and creation of office spaces, Frans Johansson noted that “One has to be mindful that people have different styles. At the same time, you have to encourage dramatic interaction, long interaction. It’s simply not acceptable for somebody to say, ‘I’m going to do all this all by myself.’”
Carmichael Roberts suggested that “what we should visualize is not a static office space, more of a ‘How do I immerse myself in different environments?’ to help who’s there to get the practical stuff done, but also to stimulate my mind to do some other things.”
Clearly, certain decisions about the work environment can be more (or less) conducive to successful innovation. From the days of the single-room office with a door to the more recent cubicles and rooms with bean bags, Robert Metcalfe said he’s seen it all in his career and believes that current open office designs and workspaces support the exchange of ideas: “We’ve reached the point where the cubicle is passé, and you just stack tables upon tables and fill them up with monitors, and people jack in and put headphones on, and they’re like cattle in a big open room, and that’s what Google and Facebook and everybody looks like. I’m convinced that it works—that is, the idea of putting people in proximity and dropping the walls has a generally positive effect, most to motivation and morale, but also to idea exchange.”
Whatever the structure or organization, Nina Tandon cited four elements to keep in mind in designing physical space:
- proximity to ensure that multidisciplinary people are close to each other;
- interdependence because unless people are interdependent they won’t collaborate;
- untidiness—an open area for freeform discussions and experimentations; and
- privacy, because most innovative thinking happens during private downtime.
Echoing these points, Varun Soni called for expanding the focus beyond the classroom, because “for students, the most transformative moments in their life happen
within the university context but outside the classroom. They happen in study abroad experiences, they happen in conversations in your dorm rooms, they happen in student religious life or community service or undergraduate student government or fraternities and sororities or recreational sports.” He went on to explain the value of the nonphysical, inner life—the “virtual space,” which is increasingly important in the digital age, and the “spiritual space.”
The space inside the person is the contemplative space . . . where the best innovative thinking happens. It doesn’t happen in the office but at home, on the treadmill. . . . It happens when I’m not thinking about work, honestly. . . . It’s really critically important for the health of the organization for people not to think about the organization, to take time away, to safely guard their vacation space, to get out of their own head every once in a while.
FACILITATE INTERDISCIPLINARY COLLABORATION
Collaboration was mentioned by many innovators, together with the observation that innovation happens at the interfaces of disciplines. They identified the following characteristics of environments that facilitate collaboration:
- Intellectual freedom. Michael Frenkel stated that “Intellectual freedom is an extremely important component for success in science and engineering, and intellectual freedom implies the free exchange of information and collaborative efforts, but again culture itself plays a significant role.”
- Interdependence. According to Nina Tandon, “There’s a role for interdependence of people [from different disciplines]. When people are interdependent on each other, it creates collaboration.”
- Explicit encouragement and training. Yoram Bresler observed, “I think academic culture in some cases stifles collaboration, and in my case it wasn’t that it stifled it but it did not encourage it. I needed to be retrained opposite to my own inclination, because some people are inclined to be collaborators just naturally, and they’ll do it. Others need to be encouraged and trained.”
- Provision of tools for collaboration. Spaces should be designed knowing that collaboration depends on the exchange of ideas. Karen Kerr described one approach: “I used to work with Krisztina Holly at the University of Southern California, and one of the things that she did in outfitting the space at the Stevens Center was she had a lot of the walls painted . . . not the chalk board, but writeable walls, so you could just write all over them in huge swaths of space—I had a whole wall in my office that I could write on as a white board. That’s very useful, because then people can draw and they can think together.”
I believe innovation is a team sport. It’s not something that’s done in isolation. If you look at Bell Labs, if you look at 3M, if you look at Google, if you look at Pixar, all of the companies that are really innovative, it’s a team sport, and the team’s made up of intentionally diverse backgrounds. You don’t have a department with mechanical engineers in it. At Pixar [for example], you have an artist, a cinematographer, a computer scientist, and a mechanical engineer. That’s your team.
– Richard K. Miller
One approach suggested by more than one innovator was theme-based rather than skills-based academic departments to encourage interdisciplinary education. As John Hennessy put it: “Nearly all the buildings we’ve built in science and engineering side of the campus in the last 10 years, none of them belong to a single department. They all mix disciplines, they mix fields. They’re thematic, like there’s an environment and energy building, there’s a nanosystems building, nanotechnology building. We’ve tried to distinctly mix things up, because place is important. And the other key thing I think we’ve done that’s been successful is for new activities where we’re trying to inspire and encourage cross-disciplinary work, we’ve actually had a venture fund that will fund faculty research projects, . . . and the key rule is that it has to include faculty from at least two different departments who’ve never collaborated before.”
An open-door policy, suggested at the workshop, would allow students from all departments to use the equipment and lab space of any other department and thus foster interaction among students from different disciplines with different skill sets.
Ivan Seidenberg said students should be required to learn multiple disciplines and that educational environments should ensure that. In his words, “I’d like a graduating student to be an expert in, say, accounting and learn all the disciplines needed to do all of the high-quality research and the use of technology and all that kind of thing, and I’d also like to see the person in marketing do that.”
ENCOURAGE FOLLOWING ONE’S PASSION
As mentioned among the skills and attributes, every innovator is passionate. Is it possible to create environments that help people to be passionate? In John Rogers’ opinion, “people are most successful if they’re passionate about something, and that’s a very personal type of thing. You can’t engineer that, you can’t teach that.” Even so, it is helpful to recognize what might stir a person’s passion, because “it is also a good proxy for when they’re going to be at their innovative best,” according to Dwayne Spradlin. This knowledge may help educators understand how to evoke the passion of their students.
Innovators were clear that passion is not usually about money; it is present when they’re working on real-world problems that they believe matter. In the context of education, Beth Noveck explained the importance of asking students to identify what they deeply care about: “We’re learning with students that, building off their interests
and the things they care about, to then learn skills using that subject matter has a much more powerful effect than trying to force them to be interested in something else.”
PLACE A STRONG EMPHASIS ON THE VALUE OF EDUCATION
Most innovators felt that they grew up in environments that stressed the value of education; for some it was their family, for others their school. For Alan Heeger, his path toward being a successful innovator started with his mother: “I give the credit to my mother, who insisted, right from my earliest memories, that I should go to university. She didn’t tell me to be a scientist, but she emphasized that education was important. So that’s how I got started.”
What we can educate students on is that it is critically important to be very well prepared on whatever the subject is for which they are seeking to create an innovation or invention. They need to do a lot of background homework, understand the context, and understand what’s happening in the world with respect to that particular area, so that the mind is well prepared when a significant event occurs.
– Uma Chowdhry
The innovators recognized that, in addition to all the skills and experiences described above, students must be prepared in a “useful” field to succeed in the global economy. As Ivan Seidenberg explained, “Schools, universities need to prepare kids. If we don’t make sure they have a discipline that’s worthy of making a contribution, they’re going to get outflanked by all the kids coming out of China and Korea and all these other places. So going to the local community college and majoring in whatever, music, isn’t going to help you unless you really want to be in music, then that’s okay, but if you’re just doing music to get through school, then you’d better go back and learn something that’s going to be useful to you. I sound like the typical cranky old guy, but I think kids need to hear these things!”
PROVIDE FREEDOM TO TINKER
Innovators often mentioned the value of environments that allowed them to tinker. Beth Noveck feels that an environment that helps people realize and exercise their “maker muscle” is incredibly important:
I think it is this idea of making and building and doing, in whatever domain interests one—it can be cooking, it could be coding—and exercising that muscle of human creativity, realizing one’s own ability and power as a maker and as a doer, that is incredibly important to nurturing the skill set that it takes to be an innovator. It’s really about initially having the confidence to realize that you have the power to make things and to change your own conditions around you. And that can come from . . . exercising this sort of “maker muscle.”
Innovators and workshop participants agreed that the freedom to tinker implicitly includes tolerance of failure, with the understanding that failure is part of an iterative process of trying, learning, and adjusting. As Sundaresh (Sundu) Brahmasandra put it, “There should be that tolerance to failure. I think the biggest thing is people are afraid to fail, and any environment that can teach that failure is not really a failure, failure is just an obstacle in some sense, is going to be very crucial. . . . We need to advocate that a failure should not usually be pinned on a person but on a process, or is a part of the process.”
In my view, we should celebrate the passion to build . . . the impatience to build . . . and encourage people to instantiate their ideas. I love doer-dreamers: those who have a vision and then try to make it so. This is one reason why the maker movement is important. It’s a return in the country to making things. We need to encourage people to be creators.
– Regina Dugan
FROM THE WORKSHOP: ADDITIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL FEATURES
Some breakout group members felt the need for freedom from constraints such as funding and time, whereas others pointed to the utility of learning how to convert a constraint into a resource. On a national scale, some participants felt that reducing bureaucracy in the United States would improve its environment, which is already considered to be supportive of innovation. Workshop participants also made the point that adverse circumstances in one’s youth (e.g., challenges associated with low socioeconomic status) need not determine one’s success as an innovator. In fact, adverse environments foster innovation; this was also mentioned by several interviewees when discussing reasons that lead to an innovative idea.