Viewpoint -- Connect To Innovate

Dec. 21, 2004
Great innovators invent very little. Instead they find and recombine existing ideas -- connections that no one else perceives.

Trying to cope with more R&D budget restraints? Start by reviewing how technology leaders connect with the innovation card. Remember "connect" not "invent" as the key word. A caution: Don't think of "connect" in terms of how the roofline styling of the Saturn Ion automobile seems to be the inspiration of at least two competing 2004 models. Such connections seem to resonate with an assertion attributed to Picasso: "Good artists borrow, great artists steal!" Great business and technology innovators, on the other hand, earn their reputation not by borrowing, stealing or even inventing, but by innovating with ideas that are not so obviously connected, says Andrew Hargadon, professor of technology management at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis. His examples: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Eli Whitney and Alexander Graham Bell. Often managements short on innovation are misdiagnosed. We label them with being afflicted with the "not invented here" syndrome when the real problem may be far more serious -- the inability to comprehend opportunity when the idea is not native to their own industry. Do these managements deserve being "excused" with this fallacious argument? Their problem is not one of internal ideas versus outside ideas, but the inability to recognize potential opportunity. Ford's greatness stems more from innovation inspired by concepts he found than by the process of invention, says Hargadon. The ideas: interchangeable parts, continuous workflow, the assembly line and the electric motor. All were products of the previous 100 years, notes Hargadon. By putting them together in new and novel ways Ford became the father of mass production. Hargadon says some of Ford's assembly ideas were inspired by the disassembly of carcasses in Chicago's meatpacking factories. The moral: Look for ways to innovate by observing and connecting with concepts from totally unrelated industries and processes, says Hargadon in his new book "How Breakthroughs Happen" (2003, Harvard Business School Press). The book notes former chairman Fred Stratton of Briggs & Stratton defining genius as the ability to see how two things that nobody else sees as related are related. For example, inspiration for appliance or automakers might come from evolving maintenance concepts in the machine tool industry. Consider what maintenance logging software from Unova's Cincinnati Machine -- Freedom E-Log -- might suggest to an astute observer from either category of consumer products. The machine tool company developed the software to track events at individual machines or cells. The software addresses the need to communicate and understand machine tool availability and up time performance as a basis for objective corrective action, says Ken Wichman, cell and system manager at Cincinnati Machine. Unlike the cryptic "check engine" warning light on your automobile dashboard, Wichman's software tells operators what's wrong so they can pursue the best corrective options. If the idea inspired carmakers, those cryptic "check engine" lights on the dashboard might be replaced with specific corrective action. Better yet, the software could, on a routine basis, access sensor data to warn drivers of impending malfunctions. The historical log of performance data also could be a plus for buyers wanting to know about the performance history of a used automobile. The challenge, says Hargadon, is for would-be innovators to put in place the organizational capabilities to bridge distant "worlds" in which lie potential valuable resources and to build the new "worlds" in which new combinations will thrive. "Managers need to find a way to embrace the past because it provides the raw materials for building the future and yet, at the same time, to see beyond the ties that bind together old and obsolete ways of doing things." For breakthroughs to happen, someone, somewhere had to make connections that nobody else had made before, concludes Hargadon. John Teresko is an IW Senior Technology Editor based in Cleveland.

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