Innovation: Of risks, dead-ends and success
Leonardo da Vinci [Source: http://www.biography.com/people/leonardo-da-vinci-40396/videos]
Leonardo da Vinci is best known for his paintings and frescoes. The piles of yellowed notes and diagrams he let pile up in his workshop might not be as beloved as the Mona Lisa, but they explain why multi-talented people are often referred to as Renaissance men (or women). When he wasn't painting, Leonardo was busy attempting to build helicopters, design plumbing networks, and create a host of other fascinating engineering projects. Five centuries on, we can confidently say that this famous artist never developed a workable helicopter. His drawings contain far more dead-ends and messy blueprints for never-realized projects than anything that was ever utilized. But that's part of why da Vinci's notebooks are so interesting to modern-day audiences. He's proof that innovation and creativity aren't necessarily neat, tidy, and the domain of people wearing white laboratory coats. Take another innovator, Thomas Edison. He was known to have experimented with thousands of different materials in his quest to find the optimal filament for a light bulb. His studio was always a cluttered mess. Creative types like Edison and da Vinci didn't view their efforts as searching for the right answer as much as they did searching for any answer. It's probably why, by redefining the question and becoming unbridled in their creative abilities, they were so successful in their various pursuits.
Companies that foster cultures of innovation and creativity do so at their own risks. But those are risks worth taking. To be sure, it can often be expensive and even embarrassing to report to shareholders or private equity executives that a certain program or initiative didn't shape up as quickly or as profitably as desired. The big picture, however, is that once these companies create the right culture for creativity and innovation, a lot of other things fall into place. Consider what the founder of Digital Equipment, Ken Olsen, said in 1977: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in [his] home." Shareholders and investors at the time probably applauded what sounded like a prudent take on the computer market. Considering what a computer was in the mid-1970s, would anyone want to come home to one? Yet here we are 35 years after that comment and none of us can think of living without a computer. Not only in our homes, but in our pockets, purses, and backpacks as well.
Getting from what a computer was to what they're becoming now was worth the trip, even though the road to innovation was filled with detours, potholes, and bumps along the way. It's certainly not a superhighway where a driver can set cruise control and glide contently to his next destination. That goes for computers or any other innovation.
Sometimes payoffs aren't so visible. Yet they are just as important and enduring to a company. Fortunate are those who work in organizations where individual accountability is an essential ingredient. Indeed, innovation and creativity require accountability; sending creative people off to do a task without a clear sense of purpose usually leads to disaster. Another facet of innovation is the ability to see things that nobody else can see. So if a leader can trust and let go of hesitance, then innovation can embed itself in the culture of the organization.
From my own experience at Infosys, our culture of innovation is a direct offshoot of the creative machine that first began in a two-room apartment more than 30 years ago. Our company's founders were relentless and stood down lots of challenges. History, both ancient and recent, is filled with people who are quick to condemn new technology. No doubt da Vinci was laughed at for trying to design a helicopter. But the culture of his workshop, which is not unlike the culture of a modern corporate innovator, was so embedded with a fearless, optimistic outlook. Speaking of history, one terrific innovation trumps a notebook filled with dead-ends.But then again, it's usually the combination of those dead-ends, scribbled on yellowed scraps of paper, that helps someone attain a creative goal in the first place.