Home > UWB Innovation Forum > Reflecting on the First Annual UW Bothell Innovation Forum

Reflecting on the First Annual UW Bothell Innovation Forum

March 2, 2012

Now that the first annual Innovation Forum is behind us, I sat down one morning after the dust had settled and tried to boil down what I had taken away from the whole experience.  The first feeling I have is appreciation for the amazing work done by the planning committee: Dinah Aldrich, Melissa Arias, Peggy Brown, Ann Cox, Lauren Dun, Gray Kochhar-Lindgren, Mat Lam, and Linda Taylor.  They were a dream team and a joy to work with.  The credit for such a marvelous event belongs to them.  The second feeling is gratitude for the community of staff, faculty, and students that together make up this wonderful campus, many of whom contributed their expertise and energy to exploring innovation in all its manifestations.  Thank you!

Then I thought of a stunningly un-innovative way of condensing my own take-aways from this past year of reading and listening into a short frame: a top-ten list of what organizations might do to foster innovation.  So here it is:

  1. Cultivate the margins.  Big innovation usually occurs on the margins, not in the mainstream, which is already conventional.  That’s why people who seek status and prestige—i.e., most of the human race!—are unlikely to be truly innovative, because status by definition is a function of the mainstream.  It’s also why truly innovative folks are often not recognized until late in life or after their death, when their innovations have become mainstream.  There is a paradox buried in there somewhere (see #8 below).
  2. Cultivate a tolerance for the right kind of failure.  Innovation requires risk, and risk requires failure.  But bureaucracies have a low tolerance for failure—the larger the bureaucracy, the lower the tolerance.  That’s why people break away from existing organizations and start their own companies—the existing organization did not tolerate risk.  It’s all about entrepreneurship, in a way.
  3. Cultivate the right kind of competition.  Competitive people tend to be conformist—the more competitive, the more conformist.  This is because they play by the rules of the game in which they are competing.  Creative people invent whole new games, with new rules (which “competitive” people immediately start playing by!).  Again, see #8 below.
  4. Cultivate private support.  Innovation requires private sources of funding.  Public sources of funding, for perfectly valid reasons, demand accountability, the standards for which tend to be bureaucratic (see #2 above).
  5. Cultivate passion.  Innovation is emotional.  It is fired by passion and intense curiosity and joy (and not a desire for status or prestige—see #1 above).  It employs reason but the motive source is emotion.  This has many levels of meaning and application, implying that emotional intelligence and rational intelligence are linked and mutually reinforcing.  The key is balance.  This rule means that organizations—like many law firms and some universities—which demand their employees sell their soul to the organization may flourish in the short run, but will invariably lose in the long run by squeezing the joy out of work.
  6. Cultivate smallness.  Large size inhibits innovation by separating people into specialties that fail to communicate and exchange ideas.  Bigness also brings bureaucracy—once again invoking #2 above.
  7. Cultivate conversation and good food.  Innovation is a function of chance encounters and frequent conversations and integrated teamwork, not isolation (though it also requires solitude—see #8 below!).  Mix people up—don’t cluster offices by disciplines.  Build buildings where restrooms, coffee, food, mail, and books are all in a central atrium/forum so people bump into each other.  Food areas should have small round tables that foster integrated conversations.  Walls should be written on.  Walls should be moveable.  Pedestrians should take precedence over cars.  People should be encouraged to sit outside as much as possible.
  8. Cultivate an appreciation for paradox and contradiction, because it is stumbling over the loose pebbles of paradox that upsets our equilibrium and sends us off in new directions of understanding.
  9. Cultivate diversity in all its various meanings, including ways of thinking and learning, cultural background, individual talents.  Diversity stimulates creativity by offering radically different ways of looking at a problem.  But it is also true (#8 again!) that too much diversity undermines integration.  By the same token, cultivate integration, but not too much.  Integration fosters common purpose, shared resources, fruitful interaction, but too much integration undermines diversity and autonomy.  It’s all about balance.
  10. Marry theory and practice, learning and experience, life and thought, knowledge and action, the abstract and the tangible.  They are complementary, each finding meaning and fullness only in dynamic, interactive relation to the other.  Think like Mom Nature (#2 above): Diversify, Select, Amplify.  Balance in all things.
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