Where does innovation come from? When most people think of “inventors,” the first image that comes to mind is often the idea of the “mad scientist” alone in a lab – the solitary genius working obsessively away from the prying eyes of the world, confident in a singular vision for what must be done. Innovation is often thought of as being the product of lone geniuses – mavericks and rebels who aren’t afraid to be unpopular or even to isolate themselves, people who defy the conventional wisdom and confound their peers’ expectations.
Innovation is often thought of as being an act of “creative destruction” where brilliant, misunderstood minds create a powerful new reality that is as undeniable as it was unexpected. Yes, every stage of innovation brings painful disruptions to the status quo – innovation creates losers as well as winners – but the “Great Man” theory of innovation (solitary geniuses shaping the future while gesturing impatiently for the rest of us to catch up) would have us believe that this is all part of the plan and an acceptable price to pay. It’s the innovators’ world, and the rest of us are just living in it.
The truth is much more complicated – and perhaps, more optimistic. In Foreign Affairs magazine, James Surowiecki recently wrote a review of "The Innovators,"
a new book by Walter Isaacson. This book describes the history of the digital revolution, and offers some surprising lessons about what are the real drivers of technological innovation.
Innovation comes from diverse teams
Instead of "lone geniuses” and solitary Great Men, the biggest innovations often come from diverse teams. Steve Jobs was a creative visionary who is rightfully regarded as one of the most important and influential innovators of the past 50 years in American technology, but he could not have built Apple in its early years without the help of Steve Wozniak – a technically minded, brilliant engineer with a different set of skills than Steve Jobs offered. What does this mean for your IT team? Seek out diverse perspectives. Hire people with unique backgrounds and different sets of skills. Be open to the possibility of great ideas coming from anywhere on your team and from anyone in the room.
Innovation requires collaboration
Another lesson from “The Innovators” is that collaboration is just as important as visionary ideas. No matter how brilliant an individual inventor might be, it’s hard for a single person to do all of the heavy lifting required to get those great ideas out into the world and find practical implementations for them. “Many hands make light work,” as the saying goes, and it’s as true today as ever. Innovation requires teamwork and open communication.
As Surowiecki writes, “the organizations that have done best at innovating have typically been those that have relied on strong teams made up of diverse thinkers from lots of different disciplines. These teams didn’t try to quash independent thinking; they welcomed it. As Isaacson puts it, ‘Rugged individualism and the desire to form associations were totally compatible, even complementary, especially when it involved creating things collaboratively.’”
What does this mean for your next IT project? Eagerly seek input from other people. Keep questioning your initial concepts and strategies, and don’t let ego get in the way of hearing a new perspective. Don’t be afraid to surrender some control if the reward is a more collaborative, free-flowing environment where people are truly working as a team.
Innovation requires a creative “ecosystem”
How did Silicon Valley become Silicon Valley? It became a promising place for tech companies...because so many promising tech companies were forming there. The place developed its own self-sustaining momentum - thanks to big companies like Apple and Google, and great universities like Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, Silicon Valley became the place to go for any creative techies who wanted to be where the action was. Silicon Valley is an example of how innovators tend to seek out other innovators. Technology companies tend to start up and form “creative clusters” where there is collaboration and complementary energy for multiple firms who are all trying to succeed. Innovations do not happen in a vacuum – they require a rich, complex ecosystem of competitors and colleagues evaluating each other’s ideas and challenging each other. Working in close proximity with peers and competitors helps innovators get better at what they do. It helps them test their ideas. It creates a kind of creative “cross-pollination” that can spark new ideas and build on what came before.
Instead of romanticizing the idea of the “lone genius,” it’s important to remember that no innovator is an island. IT leaders need to recognize the importance of collaboration, diversity, and supportive systems to promote continuous learning and improvement. Innovation doesn’t happen in a cold, lonely lab – it arises from a rich web of human relationships and everyday inspirations.