Innovation has become quite the buzzword. Josh Silverman, the CEO of Skype, stressed it during the University’s Entrepreneurship Hour speaker series two weeks ago. Googling “Mary Sue Coleman Innovation” yields more than 50,000 results.
Let’s imagine Evan the engineer, inspired after leaving Entrepreneurship Hour. He spends 40 hours of his next week doing problem sets. While he’s developing his quantitative abilities, he isn’t relating this work to other information that may spark new ideas. Thinking innovatively is foreign to him because he spends much of his time not being innovative. His current box — his available cognitive space — is so full he can’t think outside of it.
It’s no wonder Evan — although this applies just as much to Hillary the history major — has trouble altering his mindset. While people tell him to challenge conventional wisdom, his reward mechanisms encourage him to be subservient. He is incentivized to solve problems and regurgitate information, not to come up with ideas even his professors haven’t thought of.
Evan hears Republican Gov. Rick Snyder speak the following week to announce winners of the Clean Energy Prize competition and nods in agreement as Snyder urges the audience to be innovative. Then Evan undergoes a similar, non-innovative workweek. The cycle continues.
Evan’s problem isn’t awareness — it’s implementation. He has step one down. He knows he needs to be innovative. He just doesn’t know how. He doesn’t need continuous doses of step one. He needs steps two, three and four. Evan can’t learn how to be innovative by continuously hearing inspirational anecdotes. To learn the next steps, he has to radically transform how he views his education. He will not attend class to receive an education — he will acquire it. One mindset is passive, the other is active.
While he values a knowledge base, he will also value the ability to manipulate, connect and produce information from that knowledge base. He will carry a notebook with him at all times that stores all his ideas, no matter how crazy. He knows that the process will improve his ability to generate ideas. Even if he won’t use them again, he acknowledges that they may spark a tangential idea three weeks from now. Those collections of ideas may lay dormant until culminating into the big one that strikes in a couple years.
He will share his ideas with friends and those who may provide insight, while in turn seeking to hear their ideas. He will read relevant, as well as random, information out of genuine curiosity. He’ll harass professors about the things they didn’t mention. He will understand that becoming innovative is an active process in which he will receive little feedback.
Evan can’t directly be taught how to be creative, but he can place himself in an environment conducive to developing innovative thinkers — a culture that encourages making and learning from mistakes and having a physical and mental space where people can gather and engage in self-designed projects. What if the University encouraged students to allocate time and cognitive space to pursuing collaborative projects in the same way Google does with its employees? Google’s concept of 20 percent time — a policy that allows engineers to spend one day a week working on a non-work related project — is known for cultivating a culture of innovation.
Writer Steven Johnson highlights the importance of incentives, proclaiming that great ideas don’t result from solitary eureka moments in the woods. They arise from liquid networks — environments where ideas are in constant contact with each other.
The University has started to value such an environment. It offers classes where students work in teams to pursue ventures. The 1,000 Pitches competition encouraged students to present and work on their business ideas. While the project is primarily business oriented, the same concept could be aimed toward students who are more interested in targeting specific social issues. It could be called something like Solving 1,000 Problems.
While providing incentives will encourage innovation, students should value the inherent benefits involved in cultivating such an environment. Is there a better environment for liquid networks than the University? Students have the ability to share ideas with their peers, knowledgeable professors and eager alumni — they just have to care to do it. Evan may organize a meeting to do this after Entrepreneurship Hour.
The next time he hears that he needs to challenge conventional wisdom, he will stop and look around. As the crowd nods their heads in unison, Evan will consider: How so? Which conventional wisdoms? And in challenging them, what new questions will he propose?
He may even skip the talk altogether, opting to pursue some other self-designed project instead. He may hypothesize that those speakers probably would have done the same thing.
Erik Torenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.