The Nature of Innovation

One of my favorite talks of all time is Ken Robinson’s on how children are born naturally innovative and the process of schooling and growing up in our society beats it out of them by the time they are adults.  More recently, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) opened some eyes with this talk on how we think of individual creativity and where it comes from.

But I want to focus here on something that’s rarely discussed: group innovation.  Can true innovation (like scientific or technological breakthroughs) come through collaborative effort, or is it always a matter of a singular individual?  This article in the New Yorker suggests that not only can innovation be done in groups, but the innovative process can be mechanized.

Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures is the existence proof.  But as the article points out:

The unavoidable first response to Myhrvold and his crew is to think of them as a kind of dream team, but, of course, the fact that they invent as prodigiously and effortlessly as they do is evidence that they are not a dream team at all. You could put together an Intellectual Ventures in Los Angeles, if you wanted to, and Chicago, and New York and Baltimore, and anywhere you could find enough imagination, a fresh set of eyes, and a room full of [talented but not genius level thinkers].

We have a lot of problems in this world.  And a lot of talented (but not genius level) thinkers.  So, given all this, what can we do to unleash the innovative potential that is not being tapped?

  • I think the core of this approach has yet to be really broached. Where does innovation begin? I believe it is usually with a vision, and I believe this is core to answering the question posed in the blog.

    If innovation begins with vision, is vision usually created by one person or a collaborative group. While I believe it can occur either way I’d say the about 60%-70% of the time vision comes from an individual that then gets people to buy in creating a collaboration that evangelizes the innovative vision and convinces others to take part by moving this innovative thought from strategy to action.

    In my experience I have seen groups innovate, but it is usually based on some individuals core thoughts or vision.

  • @Eric, good observations. I’m more curious though not what has gone on in the past, but what’s possible now and in the future. In the case of Intellectual Ventures, it seems as though the statement of the problem plays the role of the “vision” and the group innovates via brainstorming and riffing around that vision and each other’s ideas.

  • Here’s an abstract from an upcoming talk at Stanford through the Symbolic Systems program that I thought was relevant and interesting:

    Creativity is the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable. It doesn’t happen by magic, but involves psychological processes that can be described by science. There are three ways of generating creative ideas: combinational, exploratory, and transformational. Each of these can be modelled, at least up to a point, in computers. Surprisingly, perhaps, combinational creativity is the least easy to model. Also surprisingly, the main problem in modelling transformational creativity is not generating the transformations, but evaluating the results. Computational concepts can help us to understand how creativity is possible. But no scientific psychology (with or without neuroscience) could predict every new idea–nor even explain every one in detail, post hoc.