Monday, October 04, 2010

Innovation and the Renaissance man (or woman)

It's increasingly obvious that good innovators come in all shapes and colors, all moods and forms.  What's also obvious is that many of the best innovators seem to be "Renaissance" people - that is, people with a lot of interests or who are engaged in a lot of different fields.  This always poses an interesting chicken and egg question for me:  do you have to be a Renaissance person to be innovative, or do all innovators resemble Renaissance people?

For me, some of our Founding Fathers are real Renaissance people.  Individuals like Franklin and Jefferson immediately spring to mind - people fluent in several languages who were well traveled, who could play music on several instruments and who investigated scientific theories and exchanged ideas on political issues.  These men were innovators and resembled much of what we think of as Renaissance leaders today - people active accomplished in a number of fields and disciplines, well-read and well-rounded.

In our increasingly specialized world, deep industry or operational knowledge is often valued over breadth of knowledge and connections.  The deeper and more arcane the knowledge, the higher the compensation. This leads to many information silos where individuals have great expertise but little motivation to network or learn outside of their silo.  As long as the future doesn't require integrated knowledge or insight, the deep but narrow model prevails.

However, when an industry is disrupted it's the people who can link several disciplines or insights together who piece together the new offerings, or who have the insight for new products and services.  Most research indicates that the best innovators are actively networked and constantly seek ideas that challenge their thinking.  Our brains easily get locked into repetitive thinking and must be constantly challenged or inertia sets in and our thinking is exceptionally limited.  Only through constant interaction and networking with people and ideas from a broad range of fields will we free our brains and our innovative skills from the inertia and barriers that exist.

This means you need to be getting out from behind the desk and meeting your customers, yes, but also interacting with people in adjacent industries and industries where you don't participate.  You need to be confronted with new ideas, new technologies and the shifting economics and demographics.  It's no surprise that people who travel and are confronted with different cultures are often better innovators.  Yet too frequently our teams meet only people in their industries, and when they travel are housed in generic hotels in business districts indistinguishable from suburban US cities. 

If you want to be more innovative, read outside your industry.  Try something completely new.  Read literature or watch TV shows that you'd never typically watch.  Interact with people who are very different from you.  Even better, gain new skills.  Learn to play chess or pick up a new game, a new skill or learn to dance.  All this new learning has a subsidiary benefit as well - it trains your brain and staves off Alzheimer's and brain decay, as well as having the possibility to make you more innovative.

The "Renaissance" men and women were naturally curious and didn't have Google or the ability to view information at their fingertips.  They worked for the information they consumed and were happy to contribute information and insights back.  This broad networking and learning made them more innovative, to our great satisfaction, at least where governance is concerned.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:55 PM


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