Thursday, October 31, 2013

Obtaining Innovation

Angewandte Chemie has a new editorial essay entitled "The Organization of Innovation - The History of an Obsession" which is worth a read. It has a short history of attempts by countries to have innovative companies. While it considers the years of 1920 - 1960 to be a Golden Era of innovation, it does caution against attempting to return to the past.
"If we want to get out of the spot we are in, we first need to figure out how we were maneuvered into it in the first place. This Essay is an invitation to make headway in this process. However, anyone who might be inclined to infer from this discussion that the solution to the problem would be a return to the 1950s would be on the wrong track. The epoch that spanned the years 1920–1960 yields insights into what has gone wrong today, but not into how to make things better for tomorrow. There is no going back to ivory towers and industrial monopolies; the solution can only lie in the future. But the crux of the problem with innovation is bound to remain the same: we will never know exactly what prompts it."
Bell Labs is discussed heavily, and I never knew the role that building architecture played in that environment:
"[Director of Bell Labs, Marvin] Kelly had come up with a concept of long corridors that the researchers would have to walk down to attend to some of their less cerebral activities (such as trips to the bathroom). This is where he pictured the all-important informal exchange of ideas taking place, outside of the established work groups...Statements by researchers who returned to universities after working at Bell Labs support the idea that this communications concept actually worked."
I find this rather intriguing as I've had managers who have quoted research that shows that the level of interaction between 2 people drops with the distance to some exponential power. I never believed it, as even at my current job, I spend far more time working with people from other buildings than with labmates. Now I have some ammunition to shoot back with!

As for the statement "we will never know exactly what prompts [innovation]", I think I have some insight. I've worked at 2 companies that were hotbeds of innovation. One was very large (3M) and one was very small (Aspen Research). The only common factor that I can see between the two was that they both hired good scientists and engineers with a wide range of backgrounds and let them interact with each other. 3M does this through their Tech Forum, an group of non-managerial technical people that provide a forum for researchers to present their research to the entire company through talks and semi-annual poster sessions.

Aspen had to take a different approach and that was by hiring intelligently. Aspen had about 20 chemists, engineers (chemical, aerospace, mechanical), physicists, metallurgists, etc., most with advanced degrees and ALL with over 20 years experience in multiple companies and industries. As a direct consequence, when it came time to brainstorm, I had to invite people with diverse backgrounds into the session. And the output showed the value of tapping this diversity. Crazy ideas came from all quarters [*], most of which died their well-deserved deaths, but the nuggets left behind made it all worthwhile. If it had been possible for me to pull together an equal-sized group of polymer chemists, the results would have been far, far less.

It's that simple. If you want innovation, get together a group of good scientists and engineers and let them interact. Whether it's the architectural approach of Bell Lab, the Tech Forum approach of 3M or the hiring technical diversity approach of Aspen Research, the result is the same.

[*] We use to say that it the brainstorming session wasn't over until someone had suggested an idea from Star Trek.

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