Innovation Isn't a Water Faucet

Stan. Sewitch

As I sat this evening talking to Oscar, a young man with a great idea for a new kind of construction tool, I was reminded of just how mysterious and magical the act of creative expression really is. Just think of it: a person is going along in life's adventure, doing the kinds of things we all do on a daily basis, then a new idea comes into his head. He's been going through the motions of a particular chore, and he suddenly asks that innocent question, "Hey. Why do we do it that way and not like this?" With that simple question, a new perspective is opened and Oscar leaves his mundane task to sketch the design on scrap drywall. Two months later, he's doing a patent search and talking about manufacturing processes. Next year, I'll be reading his name in Fast Company magazine.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and I think there's a good deal of truth to that cliché Nothing wrong with clichés. They can embody generations of wisdom based on field observations in real life. In Oscar's case, the necessity stemmed from his status as a new father, attempting to build a good life in one of the most expensive regions on the planet. But even when there is a compelling motivation to invent, not everyone can simply turn on the "creative juices" as they are often called. Because creativity is not a juice, and you can't just open the spigot whenever you want.

There is a great cartoon I saw, where a group of executives are poring over a complex strategic planning flowchart, showing many steps and decisions and planning activities and data gathering over a period of months. Towards the end of the flowchart, just a step or two from the colored box showing a successful outcome, is an action item in bold red: "Insert Miracle Here".

Most corporate strategic planning applies various models from academia and the world of professional planners. There is normally a facilitated discussion that includes the decision-makers from the company. Some strategists employ novel methods of establishing collaborative working groups, identifying new perspectives to assist in forming different ways of framing problems, exercises for deeper examination of an issue, etc. And if performed by experienced advisors, the outcome of these sessions can be very valuable: greater understanding, new information and perspectives, stronger teamwork among management, resolution of prior conflicts stemming from flaws in the business model, and more. But somewhere in the problem-solving process there has to be at least one person who can create new solutions with incomplete information. Somebody has to actually have a new, innovative idea.

We business advisors tend to overlook this simple fact. So do a lot of people. We make the same mistake when we compose a job description with associated qualifications. The hackneyed joke is that the successful candidate will be able to tread across ponds and lakes. But the fact is that the hiring manager universally wants someone who is an "A player", someone who can "hit the ground running". The percentage of the population of any given talent set who can be viewed as "A players" is much smaller than the percentage who are largely adequate but not the best. In fact, for any given human behavior, there is a statistically normal distribution of its frequency in that population.

So we all tend to forget that a small fraction of the population is going to be really innovative in the field concerned. And a tinier fraction would likely be repeatedly creative. The tiniest fraction would be innovative in a variety of fields. If a mark of genius is this creativity, then statistics show us that we can expect about 1-2% of the population to qualify for this label.

Now some might say that the top 1-2% of the population is the same group who leads companies. My experience is that isn't the case. I've found that most business leaders have the ability to learn quite a volume and variety of information. But the number who can be said to have that creative spark doesn't seem to be any higher in the executive sub-group than in the general population at large. Now that would be an interesting research project for some Ph.D. if it hasn't been done already. If the scientific study supports my hypothesis, I'll go as far as to speculate why that might be. I think it's because most business leaders have risen in their responsibilities based upon learning and conforming to the business' culture, systems, guidelines, methods and measurements. These leaders are good at incremental change within well-defined boundaries. Entrepreneurs are an exception, since those who begin new ventures are typically the inventive, rebellious oddballs who wouldn't conform. If their experiments succeed, it's not unusual for entrepreneurs to be replaced when the organization grows to a point where conformity has a higher value than creativity, i.e., about when the market accepts the product and sales begin to rise quickly.

Knowing that innovation can't be summoned at will, the wise strategic planner will ensure that this quirky, mysterious force is somehow included in the recipe when the future is at stake. I keep a list of rebellious, quirky, creative, irritating oddballs who might join my planning projects.



Stan Sewitch
HRG, Inc.

Stan SewitchStan is the founder and CEO of HRG, Inc. Formed in 1989, HRG initially provided organizational, operational, human resources and strategic consulting to hundreds of high-tech and middle-market companies. HRG's service assets were acquired by RSM McGladrey in 1999, and Stan continued with RSM until October of 2004. During his tenure with RSM, Stan was a Senior Partner, leading the southern California strategy and organizational consulting practice, comprised of four offices and serving clients throughout the western U.S. as well as other states. Stan left RSM to continue with HRG, developing it as a center for high-level expertise and investment financing for innovation-based ventures. HRG provides expertise and funding to qualified organizations, and consulting to clients of all types in strategy, organizational effectiveness and executive leadership development.

Stan also formed two other companies. In 1990, he launched Emlyn Systems, a software company publishing a human resources information system. In 1991 he co-founded Chromagen, a biotechnology company endeavoring to commercialize proprietary assays for drug research.

Prior to his entrepreneurial adventures, Stan held senior management positions in operations and human resources. He was manufacturing director for TRW's LSI products division in San Diego. LSI was the first company to produce one-micron analog-to-digital converters and high-speed digital signal processors in CMOS. Stan was also operations director for Elm Corporation, a salmon fishery in Bethel, Alaska. Stan's human resources management positions included Martin Marietta Aluminum, Smith International, TRW and Mycogen Corporation.

Stan holds an M.S. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from California State University, Long Beach, and a B.A. in Psychology from San Diego State University.

Stan authored a weekly column on various issues in business for the San Diego Daily Transcript, entitled "Notes from the Corporate Underground" and is working on a book of the same title. He is a frequent speaker at professional and trade organizations. He was a faculty instructor for UCSD's Extension School of Engineering for five years, teaching a course in technical group leadership.

Personal interests include teaching the martial art of Kenpo and playing bass in the local rock band, "Big Blue Cat".