The stereotype of breakthrough innovation is a lone genius having a sudden flash of inspiration in a “eureka!” moment.
But it almost never works that way, says leadership consultant Steven Berlin Johnson. In researching his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, the California-based consultant found that throughout history breakthroughs have invariably been the result of hunches that sit dormant for years and finally blossom with the help of insights of collaborators and advances in technology.
“A common theme I have in discussions with corporate leaders is that they want to hire people who are more innovative,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview. “But that suggests they aren’t looking at the potential sources of increased innovation that they already have”– the people already on staff.
He suggests simple steps that managers can take to encourage breakthroughs:
Encourage idea logs
“The eureka moment is a myth. It’s always preceded by a hunch that there’s something tantalizing that you want to explore. Ideas often stay in this hunch stage for days or years before the connections come together,” so it’s important to keep those inklings alive, Mr. Johnson says. Managers should encourage employees to keep idea files, jotting down their musings about new approaches to work and potential new products. “The idea you thought didn’t make sense yesterday can make a lot of sense a month from now when you discover something else that makes it feasible.”
Like a bee who brings the pollen around, a key role of a leader today is to be a pollinator, a person who talks to the engineering people and then talks with the marketing people and then the finance group. It’s important to not only know what everyone is doing but also to encourage people to link up. “The leader can say: Bob, it might be a good idea to talk to Bill because the two of you are facing similar challenges and what he’s finding might be relevant to what you’re doing.”
And this shouldn’t be just the manager’s role, he said. “I’d suggest that people take the initiative because someone who creates those pollinating connections will be appreciated by management.”
Don’t keep secrets
“We spend too much time as a culture dreaming up ways to keep ideas locked up in patents and keeping proprietary ideas secret,” Mr. Johnson said. “We have to remember that in the process we pay an implicit ‘idea tax’ that limits these possibilities. The Internet would not have developed as quickly and as remarkably if it was made a pay-per-search service.”
At the very least, leaders within organizations should share everything they can and people should be encouraged to discuss ideas in progress and share hunches.
Become an omnivore
A key thing to avoid is to be so narrowly focused that you don’t see trends and ideas that are developing elsewhere. “Don’t just read your industry journals, but journals of other industries and businesses that are on the forefront,” he said. “Apple ... has been consistently innovative because Steve Jobs hired people not only trained in technology but in humanities and graphic design. And he let the folks who came in with other perspectives have as much say in product development meetings as the programmers and engineers. If there was poetry in things Apple produced, it was because they have actual poets in the company.”
Don’t be a know-it-all
A seldom-noted trait about truly innovative people is that they’re good at recognizing their strengths, and equally good at knowing their weaknesses. They are willing to supplement their talents with those of the team around them to compete their skill set, Mr. Johnson said. People who think they can do everything are fooling themselves: You always need to a network around you to help you do things.
Leave some think time
If you believe in innovation, you have to give people enough flexibility to be able to think on their own.
For example, Google gives its engineers 20 per cent of their time to pursue their personal ideas. The employer is giving staff a clear directive: Take time in your week to have lateral ideas that aren’t going to be immediately relevant to the daily goals of the company; next quarter or next year, what comes out of these explorations might be the next big thing. G-mail and Google News both grew from ideas that came out of the 20-per-cent time, Mr. Johnson said.
Accept the failures
The hardest thing for managers to accept is that innovative people fail a lot, Mr. Johnson said. “A number of studies of great scientists who were game changers [found that they]often had a string of research papers that zero people cited. Then they had one or two papers that thousands cited,” he said. It’s important for leaders to say, “Go ahead and swing for the fences because even if you strike out this time, we’re confident you’re going to eventually hit the home run.”
SHOW AND TELL
Brainstorming shouldn’t be limited to issues within a company’s business, nor should it happen at scheduled times, says leadership consultant Steven Berlin Johnson. Idea sharing should be going on all the time, he said, but noted that he has encountered only a handful of companies that encourage this kind of discussion.
“Too many companies that want to innovate leave it to a once-a-year ‘creativity retreat.’ They brainstorm in the woods for a day and then it’s, ‘All right everyone back to work, we had our freedom day.’ Or they buy a Foosball table for the staff lounge.”
He’s a proponent of a concept used by design company Ideo Labs, in Palo Alto, Calif., which has developed a number of cutting-edge products, including the first mouse for Apple computers. Owners Tom and David Kelly bring their managers together for 20 minutes every Monday for what they call “show and tell.” The managers talk about things that grabbed their attention: “My seven-year-old just loves this crazy new toy” or “I saw an art installation that was amazing.”
The free-wheeling session clues in people to new ideas “and it’s been a great generator of innovation for the company,” Mr. Johnson said.