Innovation as a Social Enterprise

Stories abound about the lone inventor, cloistered at the moment of “eureka”! Like most myths it makes good theater, and is far from the reality of modern R&D.; Janet Rae-Dupree said in a recent New York Times article, “Truly productive invention requires the meeting of minds from myriad perspectives, even if the innovators themselves don’t always realize it (my emphasis)”.

Invention is a social phenomenon. Some of us primates have evolved the capacity to see, hear, and experience others as if we were them, empathy. It is a trait that helps us negotiate the complex political terrain we inhabit as social animals. It can also function to feed our imagination using the thoughts of others, to build on not only the explicit content, but the underlying sense of what they are trying to express.

I recently watched this in action with eight colleagues, relative strangers, at a weeklong forum on “Measuring Sustainability”. Our focus was energy systems, our challenges, too little time, too much complexity, and a book chapter to draft on the last day. The group had two assets: a diverse set of backgrounds and the ability to build on each other’s ideas, criticisms, experiences; empathy. This “meeting of minds from myriad perspectives” produced an insightful, inventive, useful and novel approach to the problem. We’ll be proud to see it in print with our names on it.

The ability to harness this capacity can be a critical asset for R&D; leaders. Rae-Dupree quotes Robert Fishkin, president and chief executive of Reframeit, Inc. “We need to get better at collaborating in noncompetitive ways across company and organizational lines.” We need empathy to unlock the power of diversity.

Jack Johnston – Contributing Author