Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Innovation; Eureka or Bernard?

Alexander Fleming was by all accounts a brilliant scientist, but poor communicator. His 1935 discovery of penicillin would have gone unnoticed but for Florey and Chain later industrialising its manufacture. The three shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Great innovations abound where an individual's discovery or invention is capitalised upon by others. 'If I have seen further it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants*' is often (mis)attributed to Newton.

This trope goes some way to dispelling the 'Eureka!' myth of the lone individual conjoring-up an instant solution in his/her bathtub. In reality, neither the brilliant individual, nor serial or incremental innovators reflect contemporary innovation models. Co-development or collaborative problem-solving, particularly involving diverse sectors, is much more effective.

Last year I hosted a fascinating site-visit to Bletchley Park, the site, now museum, where Britain's secret WW2 code breakers worked. We saw first-hand the importance and effectiveness of diversity in collaboration. Diversity of skills, social backgrounds and crafts all played a part in successfully developing innovations of remarkable importance.

Innovation is Combination is the title of a recent article about by Greg Satell on modern innovation models that transcend organisations or existing networks. As Greg says:

"The 21st century, however, will give rise to a new era of innovation in which we combine not just fundamental elements, but entire fields of endeavor. As Dr. Angel Diaz, IBM’s VP of Cloud Technology & Architecture told me, “We need computer scientists working with cancer scientists, with climate scientists and with experts in many other fields to tackle grand challenges and make large impacts on the world.”
Today, it takes more than just a big idea to innovate. Increasingly, collaboration is becoming a key competitive advantage because you need to combine ideas from widely disparate fields". 

*This phrase is more correctly attributed to a chap prosaically called Bernard of Chartres.

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