Can Innovation Be Taught?

In Sundayís Boston Globe I reviewed the new book Why Not? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small by Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres. Due to the Globeís policy of secreting the material into its archives in 48 hours, Iím just posting the text at the end of this post. Between here and there Iíll add a few more thoughts. All in all I gave the book a B/B+ grade. If you go to the authorís website, youíll see that many individuals have come up with their own innovations, which are ranked on the site by others. I admire the process but find much of the activity a bit trivial.

Then again, I am often so very wrong about such things. After all, I never understood the guts of Co-Opetition: A Revolutionary Mindset that Redefines Competition and Cooperation, a 1997 game-theory-influenced managerial primer co-authored by Nalebuff, which has been extremely popular and influential among the business set. So in the spirit of free-thinking, of trivial and undoable ideas, I offer a few of my own "innovations." First off: letís put everybody in the work force on the waiterís pay wage. From line worker to CEO, you earn $2.10 an hour, and make up the rest of your living wage from tips. The possibilities are endless. Imagine paying your shrink on that basis. "We had a great session, doc. I never realized how hard Iíve been working to compensate for that incident with my Dad when I was six. Hereís 300 bucks for the session." Or, on the other hand: "You know, we made no progress today. I was just spinning my wheels, whining about my relationship. Hereís a tenner." Hereís another benefit from this system: getting paid in cash, every day, when you do the work.

Okay, thatís my two cents for the day (or more, if you readers would care to tip me by buying my book!. Now, while there are some worthy books on innovationóin particular, I would recommend Michael Michalkoís Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Business Creativity, on my cranky days, I feel that any book on this topic is doomed from the get-go. Writing about creativity in the abstract is a bit like looking at the sun. It makes more sense to look at how the rays are captured by certain subjects than trying to control a force that is simply not tenable.

I will point out that this year has seen three terrific business books on abstract topics about which one normally wouldnít expect useful, hands-on, insights. Let me start with The Luck Factor: Changing Your Luck, Changing Your Life: The Four Essential Principles, by Richard Wiseman. Simple and pithy suggestions for creating your own great luck. (My favorite quote on this topic, however, comes from Ted Williams Hall of Fame acceptance speech: "Ballplayers are not born great. Theyíre not born hitters or pitchers or managers, and luck isnít the big factor. No one has come up with a substitution for hard work. Iíve never met a player who didnít have to work harder than anything else he ever did.") Another excellent book, and one which was largely overlooked: Intuition at Work: Why Developing Your Gut Instincts Will Make You Do Better at What You Do by Gary Klein. I donít have the space to recap Kleinís argument, but will say that his book, like his earlier classic on decision-making, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, draws from excellent research, delivers real insights into how to tap this quality, and doesnít present pat answers. And finally, I would urge folks to sample Profiting from Uncertainty: Strategies for Succeeding No Matter What the Future Brings, by Paul Schoemaker, whose earlier book, Winning Decisions: Getting it Right the First Time, provides a brilliant complement to Kleinís Sources of Power.

Okay, finally, as promised, my review of Why Not:

Innovation has become the holy grail of the new economy, a secret, shiny, and far-off ingredient that CEOs seek with the same faith as King Arthuróand as reliable a map. Unfortunately, most efforts to teach innovation come across like academics trying to explain humor: thereís a world of difference between citing a funny joke and teaching someone how to be funny.

"Why Not?" stands above most books in a crowded field by practicing what it preaches. Authors Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres have produced an engagingódare we say innovative?óguide to stoking creativity. "Innovation is a skill that can be taught," they assert. "And whatís more, the potential for innovation is all around us. The problem is that the sense of innovation as everyday ingenuity often gets lost in our high-tech world. That is a problem we aim to fix with this book." The authors cite Thomas Edisonís quip that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, and then trace the perspiration needed for inspiration to take place.

Nalebuff and Ayres suggest four methods for approaching problems differently, none of which are radically new in this field. People can break out of the box by removing limitations of thinkingóconceiving an answer to a problem irrespective of cost or other considerations, and then making it work. Or they can create new solutions by associating the real costs of pain to consumers on those companies or organizations that create (and solve) them. Turning an idea around serves as another useful exercise, while learning to re-frame an idea to succeed in a surprising new context is another.

Their examples are often surprising. Why not release edited (i.e. child-friendly) R-rated movies shown on airplanes to the general public? Why not turn the table on telemarketers by creating a reverse 900 number that charges them for your minutes? And yet these fun examples are both the bookís greatest asset and biggest liability. Many of the problems that "Why Not" solves are, as promised in the subtitle, small ones.

How many of us have lost sleep thinking about the problem of random phone calls that come in the middle of the night (other than answering the calls, of course)? They make a case that cars could use a black box like those in airplanes, a practice that is already in place.

And the big problems that are addressed donít always feel so real. That is, they feel like challenges devised by an economics professor (oopsóone of the authors teaches the dismal science.) Many of their solutions essentially address market inefficiencies. They come up with incentives to allocate costs to activities in order to drive behavior more effectively. They deal with the annoying problem of having to rewind videocassettes after viewing by having stores provide incentives for customers to rewind the tapes before they use them. A bigger problem that could benefit from such an outlook concerns home ownership. The authors propose self-adjusting mortgage rates to automatically refinance in line with prevailing rates. While innovative, this solution enjoys what might be called the "economistís luxury" of succeeding in theory yet falling short in the face of perspiration and human nature.

Ultimately, "Why Not?" is an engaging read whose failings have more to do with context than content. It can certainly help individuals and companies be more creative, yet doesnít address the real question of why most organizations reject innovation just as naturally as many bodies reject an organ transplant. Without a powerful method of incorporating these ideas and thoughts into a companyís products and processes, the question of "Why Not?" will always be trumped by the more powerful query of "So What?"

Posted by tom at October 21, 2003 02:42 PM

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