Innovation thrives on openness

2 Dec, 2016

Simon Green is Director of Innovate Tees Valley Festival.

The ability to innovate is something that sets us apart from other animals. We are driven by the desire to better our own situation in the world and make use of whatever resources are available to us to do so. We’ve always wanted to come up with faster, more effective, cheaper ways of doing things, from hunting with spears to fixing wheels to carts to 3D printing.

I’ve spent 20 years working in, on and with innovative businesses. In that time, my opinions on innovation have changed completely. I used to think that the best way to create new ideas was to ensure that your organisation employed the brightest people, motivated them and provided them with the tools to do their work. I spent five years in this environment within a big corporate R&D team, where we spent a fortune on the people/motivation/tools triumvirate. It didn’t work.

Clever people, working in isolation, are about as useless as the million monkeys with a million typewriters. Clever people, working in isolation, tend to create really clever things that don’t work commercially in the real world.

Openness = better ideas

So what does work? The most successful innovators I’ve met are those that don’t work on their own. In fact, they go out of their way to share ideas with the world. They build on other people’s ideas, speak to customers, learn from what works in other markets and form partnerships. Openness to other viewpoints and concepts tends to result in better ideas that are quicker to get to market and more impactful when they get there.

This approach to innovation should be obvious, given what we know about how human minds work. Marc Hauser, director of the cognitive evolution lab at Harvard University, argues that one of four traits that define humanity is the ability to bring together concepts from different domains to create something new. He calls this the ‘promiscuous combination of ideas’. Take a look also at this excellent TED talk by Matt Ridley entitled ‘When ideas have sex.’

To me, this explains my own experience with innovation. People who seek out links to expand on and test their ideas seem to be more successful. They are able to combine the thinking of multiple minds in the development of their products, services and processes. They can achieve much more than any individual (however clever) could do on their own.

I would encourage you to spend the time, whenever you can, to build your networks amongst peers, customers, suppliers, employees and wherever else is relevant to improve your ideas and accelerate their development. These networks can help with better understanding of your customer’s problems, better solutions and access to finance, talent and expertise.

One way of doing this is to go to events like our Innovate Tees Valley Festival, which brings together over 200 innovative businesses, investors and experts in one place on one day. Such a mix of individuals, all with different viewpoints and access to different resources, will lead to improved products and more successful businesses. Why don’t you join them?

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