Keeping Innovation Alive

Stephen DeAngelis

May 02, 2012

The light bulb is the quintessential icon for “bright ideas” that lead to innovative products. Andrew Hill recounts how one bright idea, the LED light, was nearly quashed by the company that employed its inventor, Shuji Nakamura. [“How to conform to creative deviance,” Financial Times, 30 April 2012] Hill writes:

“The 1993 invention of a high-brightness, blue, light-emitting diode, which opened the way for the now-ubiquitous white LED, is often told as a tale of against-all-odds innovation by a maverick genius. When Nichia of Japan ordered researcher Shuji Nakamura to stop the expensive work on the project it had initially funded, he ploughed on. He secretly sought patents for his breakthrough. He even triggered several explosions in his laboratory.”

Frankly, Nakamura was lucky that he wasn’t fired. Fortunately, he wasn’t and, back in 2007, he was “awarded the second Millennium Technology Prize – the first winner being Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.” [“The man who had the world’s brightest idea,” by Robert Mathews, Financial Times, 4 April 2007] Hill asks a couple of intriguing questions about Nakamura’s tale: “What if the intransigence of Prof Nakamura’s superiors helped to fuel his burst of radical creativity? And what if companies could harness such a force?” In other words, did Nakamura persist in his quest just to prove his naysayers wrong?

Whatever Nakamura’s motives were, Mathews writes, “Nakamura has something beyond price: a place alongside the likes of Edison as technologists who have changed our world. But his story suggests that while it took just one person to change the light bulb, there is no shortage of people who came close to stopping him doing it.” That is the conundrum that Hill examines in his article — how do you deal with creative deviance or defiance? He continues:

“Babis Mainemelis, of Greece’s ALBA Graduate Business School, suggests it is possible to reconcile the evidence that managers can build frameworks for creativity and the apparently contradictory finding that staff working in direct breach of managerial edicts sometimes achieve great imaginative leaps. Prof Nakamura is one example of the latter, he says. Others include Francis Ford Coppola, whose film The Godfather ‘violated Paramount’s directives about plot, cast, budget and location’, and Charles House of Hewlett-Packard, who defied orders from David Packard himself not to develop large-screen displays.”

There is probably a little bit of defiance in all of us. We yearn to be “our own man” (or woman) and constantly tug at the leash of our corporate masters. Hill suggests that this attitude is not only natural but desirable — if controlled. He continues:

“A new study backed by Adobe says six out of 10 adults consider themselves to be ‘someone who creates’, but that much of our ability to create is untapped (the survey comes up with a suspiciously precise figure of 41 per cent). Another, from FutureStep, part of recruitment company Korn/Ferry, says creativity now ranks above customer focus and strategic agility as the quality most sought-after in managers hired for long-term impact. Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine, which explains the science of creativity, from Bob Dylan to Procter & Gamble, is topping bestseller lists. This flowering of interest in creative people could be a signal that the recession’s survivors are now refocusing on growth. It could be merely the latest reflection of a human desire to be recognised as autonomous producers of novel ideas, instead of helpless grunts, at the mercy of martinet managers at work and television tastemakers at home. It could be a sign of spring.”

To learn more about Lehrer’s thoughts on creativity, read my post entitled Becoming More Creative. Sammy Rashed, who works for Novartis Pharma AG, appears to accept Hill’s suspicion that renewed interest in creativity and innovation is a sign that companies are once again focused on growth rather than survival. He notes that Proctor & Gamble’s CEO recently stated that “while promotions win quarters, innovations wins decades.” [“Beyond Procurement part 7: Innovation,” Procurement Leaders, 30 April 2012] Hill continues:

“Whatever has triggered the appetite [for innovation], corporate executives are desperate to sate it. The classic examples of creative good practice are 3M or, latterly, Google. They are regularly praised for setting aside free time for free thinking by staff. But companies could also encourage ‘creative deviance’, says Prof Mainemelis. Early evidence from his follow-up studies – for instance, at an advertising agency – seem to support the proposition that managers could spark deviants’ imagination with a combination of tolerance, reward and, occasionally, punishment of their rule-breaking. He admits that ‘truly organising for creativity, not just celebrating it, does have some destabilising effects’. Doubtless the LED pioneer’s colleagues, who came in one morning to find their lab benches scorched by his unauthorised experiments, would agree. But without the usual pressures to conform, innovations covertly developed by creative deviants stand a better chance of being radical successes, or so the theory goes.”

I’m not sure that defiantly creative people are happy being labeled “deviants.” I like the term “creatively defiant” better. For his part, Hill has his own doubts about how to capture the best and avoid the worst consequences of the creatively defiant person’s actions. He concludes:

“I have three main concerns. The most trivial is that a plague of organisations will wackily restyle themselves as ‘deviant-friendly’, even though enshrining rule-breaking as one of the house rules seems to invite failure. A second fear is that some clumsy managers will endorse creative flights of fancy among staff whose roles are strictly delineated for good reason – say, commercial airline pilots, accountants or surgeons. By all means, unshackle teams that design aircraft, surgical techniques or even accounting standards. But the limits on deviance must be clear. Tolerating those who creatively trespass out of bounds is one thing; turning a blind eye to others who leak commercial secrets, imperil customers’ safety, or entirely neglect their day job is quite another. Finally, I worry that the idea that leaders should be deliberately inconsistent in tackling creative deviants will set a bad precedent. Arbitrariness – singling out some employees for praise but randomly castigating others – is a cardinal management sin in my book. Still, with appropriate caveats, if it proves to be the best way to propagate a new burst of creativity, innovation and growth, it could be the exception that proves the rule.”

I agree with Hill’s concerns. That is why I believe that 3M and Google probably have taken the right approach by giving their creative people free time to pursue projects of interest. Although their interests may take them beyond the normal focus of their respective businesses, it means that leaders don’t have to castigate rule breakers and can single out employees for praise. Seems like a win-win to me. Rashed agrees with Hill that institutionalizing innovation is not an easy thing to do. He writes, “Despite the obvious benefits, innovation comes with a series of challenges that are not easy to address: How is it triggered? Can it be replicated? How to sustain it? How to measure it?”

Sustaining innovation is particularly difficult. Supply chain analyst Lora Cecere sees this challenge in the field of supply chain software where innovative companies don’t seem able to sustain their innovation. As she attends conferences, she looks for new and innovative ideas, but what she most often sees “is a pattern of software providers re-wrapping license software with additional feature function capabilities.” [“Supply Chain Software Circle Jerk,” Supply Chain Shaman, 24 April 2012] Fortunately, not all the news is bad (especially for my company, Enterra Solutions). Cecere writes:

“There were a few bright spots for me in this spring edition of supply chain software news. My most exciting moments came mainly from briefings. I am excited about the work that Llamasoft is doing for network design, the use of Enterra Solutions for Digital Path to Purchase, Kinaxis’ work on S&OP visualization, Terra Technology’s work on the redefinition of demand planning, and the use of Intelleflex for streaming RFID in cold chain environments.”

Of course, my company faces the same challenge as any other company — how to sustain innovation. Rashed offers a few recommendations. He writes:

Identify the ‘spark’ — Often innovation seems to be accidental rather than intentional, at times resulting from desperate measures trying something different when all else has failed. Budget pressures, financial difficulty, even uncertainty on the company’s future are powerful drivers which urgently force us to think differently.”

Rashed’s advice sounds a little like the advice that physicist Ernest Rutherford gave to the cash-strapped British Admiralty in World War I, “Gentlemen, we have no money, therefore we must think.” It’s more than just “thinking”; innovation also requires good listening and asking a lot of good questions. Rashed continues:

Apply robust process in very few places — A replicable process to develop the innovative idea can be built by better understanding the following key elements to help identify the kind of innovations required, … and to distinguish between Process innovations (enhancing base line performance) vs. Product innovations (enhancing top line growth):

  • WHERE is the innovation’s origin? Is the spark Accidental or Intentional?
  • HOW is the innovation developed: Explorative vs. Exploitative? Is it a push or pull model? Will the output be mandated or voluntarily used?
  • WHAT is the result of the innovation: An entirely new invention or rather a new application? Does it represent breakthrough outcome, or an incremental improvement?
  • WHY is this innovation carried out: drive top-line growth or improve bottom-line? Are we trying to fix a problem or reach a ‘blue-sky’ scenario?”

Rashed apparently believes in the 80/20 rule and recommends that innovative processes discussed above be implemented only in the areas where the greatest gain can be expected. Trying to replicate such processes more widely, he believes, won’t provide a very good return on investment. He continues:

Create an innovation governance — In-house innovations often encounter resistance within the organisation, and it’s even worse for external ideas. … A rigorous process to probe external innovations and develop them further in collaboration … is critical so that once innovation is identified, it does not get slowed down or side-lined altogether during the internal review and approval process. Ownership is ideally assigned to the functions and leaders that will actually use the innovation output.”

A “not invented here” attitude has always been the enemy of innovation. Fortunately, collaborative innovation is gaining greater acceptance. Rashed’s final recommendation is to broaden the mandate given to corporate divisions. He believes that expanding a team’s mindset is a useful prerequisite “to better identify where sparks happen.” Nothing, of course, can guarantee that innovation will occur. The best a company can do is to provide an environment in which innovation is encouraged and creativity is not suppressed. Some analysts believe that such an environment better positions a company to “pivot” as the business landscape changes rather than continue to pursue a course that will eventually prove unprofitable.