Learn from the Best

In Quirky, NYU Stern School of Business professor Melissa Schilling embraces the “great person” view of innovation, which focuses more on the individual rather than the organization. Yet, her work has implications for organizational practices to become more innovative.

Many recent studies of innovation have focused on the importance of collaboration and social setting, and emphasized the ways in which good ideas are typically the product of many minds, rather than one. Schilling looks instead at eight individuals whom she calls “serial breakthrough innovators”: Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Dean Kamen, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk.

Schilling argues that serial breakthrough innovators are different from the rest of us because they’re able to come up with groundbreaking innovations over and over again, rather than just once. And their innovations represent dramatic leaps, rather than incremental improvements.

Great innovators, she argues, tend to be obsessive workers who sleep very little and are willing to sacrifice almost everything to the pursuit of their goals. They’re able to do so in part because they have an unrelenting drive for achievement and because they derive tremendous pleasure from work, which offers them that feeling Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow. You’re in the flow when you have (1) complete concentration on a task; (2) clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback; (3) transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time); (4) the experience is intrinsically rewarding; (5) effortlessness and ease; (6) a balance between challenge and skills; (7) actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination; and (8) there is a feeling of control over the task.

Innovators also have exceptional working memory, and the ability to hold many concepts in their mind at once. This allows them to “search longer paths through the network of associations in their mind,” which in turn increase the chances that they’ll make interesting and unexpected connections between ideas. Schilling also suggests there may be something concrete about the cultural association between genius and madness. Pointing to the experience of Tesla, who had an extraordinary sensitivity to outside stimuli and would routinely go for long stretches on almost no sleep, she argues that most great innovators have at least a touch of mania.

Innovators have hubris which is the conviction that one can accomplish whatever one sets one’s mind to. This is crucial because the very nature of breakthrough innovations means that most people will be skeptical of their value. Most of the case studies show these people as outsiders in the fields they helped revolutionize; idealists, convinced that they could change the world. Elon Musk believed he could become the first civilian to put rockets into space, and Dean Kamen built a wheelchair that could climb stairs, even though everyone told him it was impossible.

They are separate, manifested as “a lack of interest in social interaction, a rejection of rules and norms, and often isolation even from family members.”

Schilling’s sample size is so small that it’s hard to know if the conclusions she draws from that sample about the nature of serial innovation would hold up to closer scrutiny. Even within her group of eight, not everyone fits the model. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, had a rich social life and cultivated a large network of friends, but was also an undeniably brilliant innovator. The same was true of Leonardo da Vinci. Einstein made sure to get 10 hours of sleep a night. Thomas Edison, as Schilling says, was resolutely unidealistic, insisting on commercializing everything he could.

Organizations and leaders can learn how to harness the innovative power of ordinary people. Organizations do not need the lone creative genius if it can create effective innovation processes. Encouraging a diversity of cognitive and social styles, and allowing employees to maintain a measure of distance from one another, rather than insisting on constant connection, may facilitate independent thinking. Let people come up with ideas and solutions on their own, and then aggregating those ideas, is more likely to yield interesting answers than brainstorming in groups. Note that brainstorming is often the go-to method for design thinking – which may not always yield the best results. Casting a wide net when looking for ideas, rather than referring only to specialists in a field, may increase the possibilities for unusual approaches.

Paramount among the lessons is to instill employees with a sense of purpose. Leaders can always start with “why” before “what.”

Parts of this blog adapted from comments by James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations (Doubleday, 2004).


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