What is Innovation?
I am currently reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (also Author of Steve Jobs Biography). In his book Isaacson states:
“Most of us have been involved in group brainstorming sessions that produced creative ideas. Even a few days later, there may be different recollections of who suggested what first, and we realise that the formation of ideas was shaped more by the iterative interplay within the group than by an individual tossing in a wholly original concept. The sparks come from ideas rubbing against each other rather than bolts out of the blue.”
This reminds me of a story I was once told about innovation at an American power company, Pacific Power and Light, slightly abbreviated here…
“Ice storms in the Winter would result in ice accumulating on the power lines to the point the lines would break under the weight. To prevent this happening, immediately after each storm, Linesman would be sent out to climb up the poles and shake the lines to remove the ice. This was unpleasant and dangerous work and they needed a better solution.
PP&L had, in the past, conducted a number of “brainstorming” sessions with no positive results. They then turned to a professional resource to organize still another session. He suggested that a diverse group be assembled to look at this problem. Rather than assembling just linemen and their supervisors, the resource insisted that people with a large variety of job functions be convened to look for a more creative way to get the ice off the power lines. In the “brainstorming” session that followed, were linemen, supervisors, accountants, secretaries, and people from the mail room.
Several hours into the meeting the professional resource was beginning to become concerned that this effort would be as unproductive as previous ones. Then, during one of the coffee breaks, he overheard two of the linemen talking.
“I hope we can finally figure out a better way to skin this cat.” said one. “I really hate this job. Why, just last week, I was coming down from a pole, and, when I hit the ground, I was looking eye to eye at one of the biggest, meanest black bears I’ve ever seen. That bear, apparently, was not happy that I had invaded his territory, and chased me for well over a mile before he was satisfied that I would not return.”
Trying to stimulate the group, the resource retold this tale to the rest of the session.
“Why don’t we train the bears to climb the poles. They are so big and so heavy that their weight would probably be enough to shake the wires and knock the ice off.” quipped one of the linemen.
After the laughter died down, the group thought of hundreds of reasons why that was a silly idea.
Then another of the linemen suggested that although training the bears seemed foolish, perhaps by placing honey pots on top of the poles, the bears would naturally climb the poles to get the honey and, in the process, shake the poles sufficiently to knock the ice off the lines.
After another period of laughter followed by more objections, one of the more senior, more sarcastic linemen said, “You know all those fancy helicopters those fat cats in the front office fly around in all the time? Why don’t we grab one of those and fly from pole to pole placing the honey pots on top just after an ice storm.”
Still another period of laughter followed. Then one of the secretaries spoke for the first time. “I was a nurse’s aide in Vietnam. I saw many injured soldiers arrive at the field hospital by helicopter. The down wash from the helicopter blades was amazing. Dust would fly everywhere. If we flew the helicopter over the power lines at low altitude, would the down wash be sufficient to knock the ice off?”
This time there was no laughter – just silence. She had come up with an answer. By valuing diversity and by encouraging divergent thinking, the resource had enabled the group to come up with a possible solution to a problem all wanted solved.”
As Steve Jobs said..
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while; that’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences.”
Does your company hire people of diverse backgrounds with different work and life experiences? What about the company leadership? Does at least half the senior leadership have experience working in other industries or is their experience solely in the industry your company is in?