Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beyond the cube: why crossing boundaries matters to innovation

Last week I schlepped my family to Boston for spring break.  Interesting choice, you might say.  Most people head to the beach for spring break, or at least somewhere warm.  Or, if they choose to travel to northern climes they travel to ski resorts.  Well, we braved the New England weather so my daughters could visit college campuses (campusi?) scattered in the northeast, including such stalwarts as Harvard, MIT, Yale and Princeton.

A side trip to MIT's museum sparked an incredible insight for me about innovation.  If you are ever in Boston, take the few minutes to get over to Cambridge and visit MIT's museum, which is full of their current research, interesting art combined with technology, and many inventions and technologies that were spawned from the very bright people at MIT.  If possible, go with a curious, scientifically interested kid in tow.

It was at the MIT museum that I was introduced to Vannevar Bush.  The name may ring a bell for you, as he was an advisor to Franklin Roosevelt during the second world war.  He was also an MIT professor and dean and one of the developers of the differential analyzer, which allowed fast computation of differential equations.

The exhibit goes on to explain that Bush's research and development of the differential analyzer enabled the research of two other people who are featured in the exhibit.  One who benefited from his work was another MIT professor named Harold Edgarton, whose work with the stroboscope has created the iconic photography of the drop of milk and the subsequent splash.  While Edgarton's work may have progressed without the differential analyzer, Bush's work accelerated the work of Edgarton.  Bush's differential analyzer accelerated the work of other faculty members as well.

What's all this got to do with innovation?  Well, there are several key points to make:

  1. Innovation drives other innovation.  Bush's inventions and ideas created entirely new possibilities for innovation for others, who used his ideas and inventions to create entirely new inventions in completely different fields
  2. Innovators must draw from others outside their discipline.  Edgarton and Bush, while both in the engineering curriculum, were in very different fields. Yet the intersection of their work is far more valuable and innovative than their work on its own.  If neither man had bothered to look beyond their labs for new ideas, new technologies or capabilities, we'd have far fewer innovations.
  3. Mixing ideas, even those from very different disciplines, can create entirely new concepts.  Far too often we innovators try to innovate within our cubes, or at least within our corporate confines or within our technology limitations.  Bush demonstrates why that is at best a very limited approach.
Now, many of you will argue that these two were in an academic setting, where it is easier for ideas to flow across boundaries.  Further, both were housed at MIT and therefore were in close proximity to each other, creating a greater likelihood of valuable sparks.  Both of these may be true, but these concepts and capabilities aren't by definition limited only to the academic world, which in any case is far less collegial and open for exchange that it was once.

If these conditions lead to more innovation, we corporate innovators should spend less time explaining why the academics have it so good, and find ways to mimic the conditions that we believe drove the success. Why should academics and university researchers have all the fun?  Certainly we are smart enough to identify methods that allow us to exchange ideas and technologies with individuals in other companies, regions, industries, in such a way that we both gain from the exchange and new ideas are created.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:26 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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