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Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

Innovating Innovation

Feb 28 2018

The most helpful topic for an Innovation Center blog would seem to be examining whether innovativeness can be instilled in people the way installing computer programs enables us to do different things, and if so, how is it downloaded, or learned?  Is there a single Skill Set underpinning all the other attributes that are identifiable in the majority of innovators, short of the few savants floating around, and even there?  Do innovations like the light bulb and Internet arise out of nowhere, or evolve as species do: putting similar things together again and again, and how is that done?  




You know what innovation is.  Of course you do.  Everybody does.  It’s making things that work better.  Or is that just improvement?  An innovation is a breakthrough, like the transistor radio, cell phone, or driverless vehicles, but some of the ways of just making things work better can also be innovations.  My first job the summer before leaving for college to become an architect was in the firm of Raymond Loewy, often described as having designed the 20th Century, one of whose innovations was the flip-top box, so you can secure both sides with a flap and groove.  Hard as it is to imagine that Leonardo and Michelangelo never thought of sticking a chair on curved planks, it took another master innovator to see how relaxing—one might even say thought-provoking—that would be.
I’ve read a few books about how innovations come about by some of the legends at it, like The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley, then general partner of legendary innovative design firm, IDEO, but for all the fascinating refinements about their innovation process that they describe, which might well be considered innovations in themselves, the missing piece of the puzzle for me, as it should be for everyone concerned, is the mechanism that drives innovation within the elaborate organizational designs that facilitate it.  What makes those people innovative?  Perhaps it’s so second nature to the brilliant innovators, who write about it, they don’t notice the mechanism and take it for granted, focusing instead on the results of the way their mind works.  And of course, like everything else, innovativeness comes in all different degrees, which begs The Question: why are some of us so much more innovative than others?  How much is sheer talent; how much pure skill, which anyone can acquire and improve their innovativeness by honing that skill?  What is that skill?  What do people do, to juggle things around and come up with new ways of looking at situations, approaching them from new angles?
I’m no mathematician, but while most of what is shown on a math class blackboard during TV promotions of colleges during performances of their athletics teams might as well be hieroglyphics for all that I can make of them, E = MC2 is still the same kind of equation as 23 = 8.  One might suppose, from the oddity of many higher mathematics symbols and formulations, that there is little similarity between them and word use, until someone reads from equally learned literary scholars how Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, James, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, and others achieved the powerful effect they have on us, formulating words as innovatively as the greatest mathematicians do with numbers.  They make it look easy, but only a handful in all the world every century are able to innovate the way words are used, to create new ways of seeing and understanding how each of us interacts with the realities inside and around us.  Surely all those mathematical sequences correspond to something in reality, and even pure mathematics for mathematics’ sake has its counterpart in literary criticism and the laws of composition and principles of criticism, itself. 
Most Third Graders can read and write.  Very few high school seniors can do that well enough to get into top-tier colleges.  Even beyond that, there is a huge differential in every profession between how well people comprehend and communicate information, including events at hand, which is also a form of reading comprehension.

I wonder: this is an Innovation Center, which is part of the Innovation MBA program.  Many students pass through here.  Many professors teach here.  I have some idea what it takes to become one, let alone get hired as such at a fairly prestigious, large university.  Surely there must be some discussion along the way about what innovation actually is and how it comes about.  Apparent business and technology innovations seem to abound around us, BUT …is ubiquitous UBER, for example, really an innovation, or merely shrewd use of existing ones and whistling past the regulators, which inevitably is catching up with them?  I doubt that waterproof phones are, either, since waterproof wrist watches have been around since at least half a century that I can recall.
My bet is that a list of true innovations would indicate that each of them required seeing or understanding something that other people lacked the knowledge or skill to recognize.  Innovation is a perception aptitude, not a business management one.

According to Tom Kelley, innovating through improving every facet of the design process is, itself, innovating innovation, which led to yet another innovation of innovating: innovations in the very design of business models and systems for clients whose products and services they innovated.  When I first met with our fearless leader, Professor Wolf, he mentioned that Chris Argyris, one of whose statements I frequently use—“People don’t talk about what they see; they see only what they can communicate”—gave him his first job at Yale, and was one of the innovators of that whole field of Organizational Development; that is to say, innovating how organizations develop. 
We generally think of design as a visual process, from Leonardo and Galileo to Beethoven (who was deaf but knew how the notes he designed would sound) and Picasso, back to the bronze age at least, but writing is done every bit as much by design.  Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx were as brilliant writers as natural and social scientists. 
REMEMBER: if you only see what you can communicate, you can only think what you can write.  How we write manifests how we think.  In this case, we know whether the chicken or the egg came first.  Want to be innovative?  Work on your writing, and writing, like painting, is as much a matter of seeing as it is of crafting words or brushstrokes. 
These posts are a virtual Bible on the subject, chock full of examples of how what I call The Uniform Structure of Information can be applied to every facet of work and life.  Waaay back on August 11th, 2014, a post called Innovative Re-Viewing: Disruptive Information, discussed a New Yorker article by Harvard professor, Jill Lepore, called “The Disruptive Machine,” as an exemplary example of how the writing process enables someone with tremendous skill in its use to see what others don’t.  She innovatively disrupts disruption, itself.  Everything can use some innovating, including YOU!

You need to be learning to continually broaden, deepen, brighten, and sharpen how you SEE, while you learn how to manage innovations, if you want to go beyond doing what you’re told, to improving what you’re told.  Going to museums, ballet performances, plays and movies, listening to innovative music, and reading innovative literature, alone, won’t cut it.  You have to delve into what scholars in each of those arts write about examining and understanding them.  You’re spending years here learning about business management and innovation, and will have to continue learning about them for the rest of your lives.  Why would you think you can just mosey up to a painting worth tens or hundreds of millions, and “get” what’s going on there at a glance, much less WHY it does what it does SO well as to be worth that much?  You’re just seeing the surface.  As much or more—much, much more—is going on behind the surface, in the way it is put together as it is in a business, AND learning to see THAT also enables you to observe and understand what’s going on in businesses, to boot!  Likewise, ballet, music, and architecture of all kinds.  The VALUE is in the details.  Apple is worth as much as it is for the same reason that a Rembrandt is: their attention to details and details within details.
Trusting that professors still occasionally assign books of their own, as they did when I was in college, the website alone for a book of mine, called The Key Skill of All Skills, provides enlightening insights into how to improve your communication skills.  https://LearnHow2Learn.com has links to Amazon and elsewhere you can poke around the book a bit, and see Experts’ Comments about it.  The website alone is an abbreviated dissertation on the subject.  



Stony Brook University Innovation Center, Stony Brook, NY 11794-3775

Phone: 631.632.7171
Fax: 631.632.8181