Five thoughts on innovation

Photo by annais on Flickr

Photo by annais on Flickr

Another very interesting panel at the retreat I went to this week covered the topic of innovation: how do we generate ideas and see them through successfully?

Among the panelists were successful PIs, an NSF CAREER award recipient, and entrepreneurs (not mutually exclusive), and each one gave a personal reflection on what it means to be innovative and how one nurtures innovation, followed by an open forum. I can’t do the very excellent discussion justice so I won’t even attempt to give a full summary, but will instead mention some of the points that made the strongest impression on me.


1. If innovation is the engine, then passion is the fuel.

For entrepreneurs and scientists alike, being creative and innovative is necessary for success, generating the ideas that keep the enterprise – whether it be business or research oriented – running. But it’s incredibly difficult to be innovative on problems you’re not passionate about. So be aware of what your own interests are, and let yourself nurture them.

2. “It’s better to be lucky than smart” + “Fortune favors the prepared”

Ideas often come when you least expect them, but they don’t really come out of the blue. Ideas come from the topics you think about, so let yourself grapple with the problems that ignite your curiosity, wrestle with them, play around with them. Then, your subconscious will pick up when you stop thinking about it, making connections that surface unexpectedly. Changing things up can often help trigger new connections, so look for new environments that might stimulate different areas of your brain.

Preparation isn’t just mental, either. Keep a notebook with you whenever you can so you can jot down ideas or thoughts that come to you. Don’t count on yourself remembering it later!

Photo by poportis on Flickr

Photo by poportis on Flickr

3. Have a million ideas and throw out the bad ones.

This is actually a paraphrase of Linus Pauling‘s quote, “If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.” Just as most projects will fail, most ideas won’t work, so the key is to have as many ideas as you can, and then figure out which ones are worth pursuing.

Photo by pakgwei on Flickr

Photo by pakgwei on Flickr

Experience, as well as sharing your ideas with others and getting critical feedback, will help you separate the good from the bad. There’s definitely a balance you need to strike between recognizing when an idea should be retired and having “finitiative” – the initiative to finish. Stay open-minded, listen to people, but if you have a real gut feeling about something, don’t be afraid to go with it. Some people have had to wait ten years before others validated their ideas.

4. Don’t be afraid of 80%.

Many computational scientists are familiar with the phenomenon where, to solve a particular problem, we produce more and more variations on algorithms with increasingly smaller gains in performance. (Good examples are speech recognition and other AI type tasks.) If anyone tried to publish an algorithm that only got 80% accuracy when all its contemporaries had, say, accuracies around 95%, they’d probably get dismissed by everyone else rather quickly. This is unfortunate, because while all the current methods are probably variations on the same theme, the new algorithm could be doing something truly different. So don’t judge something simply by how it compares to others. Something that is really innovative will likely seem inferior on first glance or first implementation.

5. Never underestimate the power of a good shower.

Almost all the panelists agreed – some of their best ideas came while they were in the shower. So get cleanin’, and start dreamin’!


Addendum: I brought up this point at the very end of the panel discussion because so far everything I’d heard indicated a one way flow of information – from outside to inside. But given the company I’ve started keeping, I now always think of information flow as two-way. You can certainly learn from others if you take seminars, ask questions, etc, but you will learn even more if you share your ideas with others. So the last uber-thought I want to add is:

*. “I’ve never had an idea that couldn’t be improved by sharing it with as many people as possible.”

This quote by Bill Hooker in his seminal essay on Open Science pretty much sums it up. After I mentioned this, one panelist told a story of how he might never have pursued the research field in which he is now a leader if he hadn’t found a supportive community of peers that understood what he was doing and could give him constructive feedback and encouragement; his academic career up until that point had been extremely lonely. So it’s important not only to find people who will support you, but people who you can bounce your ideas off of. For this, I find the FriendFeed community, and social web tools in general, to be a wonderful resource.


4 Responses to Five thoughts on innovation

  1. Deepak says:


    Excellent post, yet again.

    #4 is the one that gets lost in the crowd. Too much of the “variation on a theme” going on, and too little of the 80% that is different.

  2. gregorylent says:

    innovation, and creativity, take place in the mind, are functions of consciousness, depend upon awareness, and it always stuns me how people look for external or systemic solutions to what is simply a function of the level of one’s inner awareness …

    who knows most about awareness in this world? yogis… but god help one if one suggests meditation to any scientist as a tool for increasing comprehension in any form, particularly the ones i find populating the friendfeed social network, where i discovered this article …

    yet it is simply the most direct way to expand creativity ever invented …

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  4. shwu says:

    @gregory: Actually, several people mentioned the importance of quiet contemplation, eliminating stress, etc, that it’s difficult to think freely when you’re tense and distracted. Someone suggested long peaceful walks (no shortage of beautiful ones in the Bay Area) but meditation may be just as effective. Whatever works.

    At the same time, coming up with exciting ideas sounds like it could be at odds with meditation in some ways. I can’t imagine someone meditating to expand their awareness and all of a sudden jumping up in a “eureka!” moment. What do you think?

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