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The Typical Innovator

Posted on June 20th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence

The typical Innovator

As the popular story goes, true innovators labor alone, hidden, toiling over their invention. Iteration after iteration, moving through a learning cycle that removes an idea that didn’t work. A secluded introvert gives birth to a solution through a magical process. The process is shrouded in mystery, with only a few talented people blessed with unique skills and passion. My observations reveal a different story of innovation; rather that innovation is a result of having a team with the right connections and partnerships, at the right time.

I’ve spent the last year mentoring engineering students during their capstone senior design course. Part of the goal is for the students to demonstrate their project management skills while learning to navigate the ambiguity that comes with a real project. The team’s energy was infectious and they produced new ideas and solutions that fueled innovation. The students shared their projects through discussions, surveys and meetings and the teams of four students were supported by a much larger effort across the campus.

This process made me think – when developing new chemicals and the processes around them, I always worked in a team. The team, a small group of talented professionals, used both their talents and networks to push and refine a platform until it was worthy. The overall effort was supported by several people and partnerships, more of an ecosystem than a rigid project team.

When comparing the two experiences, I noticed a pattern of development. Innovation happened in a group that was larger than the team, more of a large collection of connections where ideas, solutions, problems and knowledge are transferred back and forth.  Ideas came from different sources, bits and pieces of a platform came from different partners, and the students learned from different industries and combined the findings into their project. This contrast with the traditional view of a secluded inventor made me think, is innovation the result of a larger system?

The film The Social Network painted Mark Zuckerberg as a romantically challenged introvert with special coding talents who developed Facebook. When later interviewed, Zuckerberg commented that he was actually dating his current wife and the movie, “Made up a bunch of stuff,” (Batty, 2010). This example provides some basic information on how reality and beliefs about innovators differed, but I also wondered was I only finding data to support my observations? Time to dig deeper.

I read about Thomas Edison, one of America’s greatest innovators.  Edison is considered to be a stereotypical innovator; talented and passionate, churning out invention after invention from some dark room packed with equipment. In reality Edison setup Menlo Park, a predecessor to today’s technology incubators and matrix structures. He had a large room with long tables where engineers could work side by side and easily communicate (Hargadon, 2003).  Further research uncovered that Edison did not actually invent the light bulb alone, in a sterile environment. Rather, he combined previous patents and borrowed existing technology from different fields and recombined them in new ways (Hargadon, 2003). The same is true of the Wright brothers, who combine their mechanical knowledge of bicycles, the Bernoulli effect, and other technology sources to invent the first flying machine (Smithsonian, 2016).  The pattern I observed in student teams and in industry was reflected in Edison’s and the Wright brothers’ activities.

Innovation is difficult. The process of finding a new and better way to solve a problem is a challenge for even the most talented individual.  It’s also a process that ties into the network beyond a team, partners that may support the project, and having the right solution that aligns to solve the right problem at the right time.  I saw my students tap this larger ecosystem and as they interacted their projects flourished.  This larger system both supported and fed into the process.  The chemical development teams I worked on followed the same process, connecting the dots as we developed and tested a new system.

In industry we can miss out on the bigger picture as we focus on our daily tasks. We can forget that part of the research and development process is to connect with others outside of the core team.  Possibly the most important part of the process is to identify and interact with the ecosystem around the project.  Today when I lead teams I ask myself how can the team be better positioned to connect the dots? Can a system be setup where information flows and the team can access networks outside of themselves?  Can the team progress without distraction when they need to? Can they identify and access the larger ecosystem like Edison and the Wright brothers?  These questions help form the foundation of innovation.

  • Hargadon, A. (2003). How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.
  • Smithsonian Institution. (2016). Inventing a Flying Machine.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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