Innovation is a Team Sport

Recently, I led a roundtable conversation on stimulating creativity. An attendee challenged me by saying that most folks were not creative, and only a few, like himself, had the ability to innovate. I politely, but vehemently, disagreed with him.

While it’s true that many of us, including myself, had creativity beat out of us by the first grade by teachers insisting that we “color within the lines,” the research tells us that everyone can recapture that spirit with the right tools and the right environment. The critical pieces include a willingness to fail (i.e., make mistakes and learn from them) and an environment that supports, rather than punishes failure as learning. Another critical piece is gathering information and stimulus from a wide variety of sources, and keeping your inner critic from ignoring divergent thoughts and data that doesn’t support your assumptions. Lastly, creativity is definitely a team sport – interaction with others, especially those who are different from you, will yield bigger and better ideas.

These tenets of creativity and innovation are illustrated in Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators, which I just finished reading. This account of key computer and network innovations starting with early computing and ending with the world wide web, shows that while individual inspiration was behind some insights, there are equally as many cases where a community of innovators, such as at Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, or at several universities, made significant progress possible.

It occurred to me that the cases where a single person stood out were mostly cases of entrepreneurship – famous examples like Steve Jobs convincing Steve Wozniak that they should sell Apple computers, rather than give the idea away; Bill Gates pushing Paul Allen to cut a deal with IBM for the first PC operating system; and Robert Noyce seeing the possibilities of multiple circuits on a single chip, leading to the formation of Intel. So innovation, bringing new ideas to the market can happen inside an existing organization, or can happen in a new, entrepreneurial endeavor. In either case, it’s a team sport that anybody can play.

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