In the process of researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I talked to dozens of successful innovators, from world-class scientists seeking to cure cancer and create new computing architectures, to senior executives at large corporations and entrepreneurs at startups. It was a pretty diverse group.
One of the underlying premises of the book is that there is no one “true” path to innovation, so I expected to see a variety of approaches and that’s indeed what I found. Some of the people I talked to were slow and deliberate, spending years or even decades on a difficult problem. Others were fast and agile, iterating and pivoting toward a viable solution.
However, I also noticed that some remarkably constant themes emerged. Over time, it became clear that while the people I talked to were vastly different in background, training, personality type and method, they tended to have four attributes in common. While none of these will make you a great innovator, you are unlikely to innovate without them.
The most striking thing I noticed in my research was how innovators approached problems. They didn’t wait for them to arise but actively sought them out. It is that passion for solving problems, rather than any particular personality type or ambition, that separates all of the innovators I talked to from most people and organizations.
Experian, for example, set up a special unit to seek out and solve its customers toughest problems. IBM regularly sets up “grand challenges,” like developing a system that can beat humans at Jeopardy!. Steve Blank, whose ideas inspired the Lean Startup movement, encourages entrepreneurs to “get out of the building” and talk to customers.
One of the most interesting people I talked to was Jim Allison. Low key to the extreme, he’s the type of guy who you would scarcely notice in a room. As a boy, he decided to be a scientist because he just liked “figuring things out.” So for more than 20 years, that’s what he did, sought out gaps in our understanding of the immune system and tried to figure them out.
But in the mid-90’s he had what turned out to be a revolutionary idea. His decades of study led him to believe that our bodies were shutting off the immune system too early to fight cancer. It was this insight that led him to develop cancer immunotherapy, which today is considered a miracle cure that saves the lives of thousands of terminally ill patients who once had no hope.
Allison is an extreme case, but I found that most innovators had some version of the same story. Most never dreamed they would do anything important, they were just trying to solve a problem.
Not all of Jim Allison’s story was happy. In fact, after he had his initial breakthrough, he spent three whole years trying to convince pharmaceutical companies to back his idea. There were no takers. “It was depressing,” he told me. “I knew this discovery could make a difference, but nobody wanted to invest in it.”
This is more common than you would think. Often, the stories we hear about great innovations are fairy tale versions that gloss over the uncomfortable parts. We hear about the triumphs, but not the frustrations and so we mistakenly believe that pathbreaking ideas are supposed to come to us as magical epiphanies.
Consider the case of Alexander Fleming. We often hear about how he discovered penicillin when the bacteria colonies he was growing became contaminated by a mysterious mold. Yet what is rarely mentioned is that his discovery couldn’t have cured anyone and that it was another team altogether who made penicillin into a useful drug.
The truth is that innovation is never a single event and rarely is it ever accomplished by a single person. It often takes decades for a fundamental discovery to have an impact on the world and along the way countless people play a part in making it happen.
When Alph Bingham was a chemistry graduate student at Stanford in the 1970’s, he was struck by how many ways there were to approach a tough research question. “The professor would present us with a problem and 20 different people would have 20 different ideas about how to solve it,” he told me.“
So when he first came up with the idea that became InnoCentive at Eli Lilly in the late 1990’s, he envisioned a platform that would work much the same way. It would allow chemists to post unsolved problems in order to attract insights from other chemists. What he found though was that most of the time answers came from some adjacent field, like physics or biology. So it became important to encourage experts on the platform to cross disciplines.
Something similar happened when Children’s Health in Dallas set out to create a revolutionary new program that would go beyond simply delivering care by going out into the communities to address the social determinants of health. At first, it seemed clear that the best way to do that would be to leverage the hospital’s primary centers.
Alas, the plan proved to be unworkable. So it created an entirely new infrastructure made up of health care navigators who help families connect with other resources in their community, such as Children’s Health and Wellness Alliance, a nonprofit that weaves together more than 100 community resources such as schools, social service, and faith-based organizations.
Every story I came across had an initial vision that was flawed in some way. So to be effective, innovators need to be quick to recognize problems and pivot to a new idea.
What struck me most about the dozens of people I interviewed was that the vast majority, with few exceptions, were not only helpful in providing me with their formidable expertise and experiences but showed a genuine interest in my project and asked me a number of questions about it. That’s unusual.
Later, when I sent them excerpts to fact check, in almost all cases they pushed me to give more credit to others and less to themselves. In some cases, they agreed to look over early versions of chapters. You can imagine my surprise when, more than once, the early drafts came back not only with helpful suggestions but also with my typo’s corrected.
I kept thinking what an inefficient use of resources it was to have such prominent people working for me as copy editors — and pro bono no less! Then I realized that’s what made them such great innovators. They are simply the type of people who are happy to pitch in wherever they can be of help. Great innovators tend to be great collaborators.
I think this last attribute is the most telling. If you are working for your own glorification, it’s hard to seek out hard problems, to accept inevitable failures, to be flexible and to give credit to others, because all of those things undermine your ego. Successful innovators, on the other hand, are motivated by the problems themselves and that makes all the difference.
This blog was originally published here.