Enough blue-sky lists of ways to boost your innovation. If you want it, you've got to talk to the people who've got it, says Kim Chandler McDondald.
Innovation is clearly one of the biggest preoccupations of the engineering and technology sector, and there are many, many books on the subject from authors claiming to offer insights into how to be the next Apple or Google. Most of these titles actually offer very little inspiration or 'takeaway insight', but Kim Chandler McDondald's latest addition to the genre,'entitled simply 'Innovation', stands out. It is a direct attempt to get into the heads of people who have already had success as innovators.
Subtitled 'how innovators think, act and change the world' McDonald's book is nothing more elaborate than a series of interviews with powerful and influential people. 'Generally, all of the thought-leaders I interviewed have been extremely successful,' she says, before qualifying this by stating that some are still 'in the midst of their journey'. The first characteristic they have in common is they all 'live the hardcore reality of innovation, walk their talk.' What that means is that 'Innovation' isn't a book of neatly categorised silver bullets for people in need of a formulaic 'ten steps to success and happiness' fix. As McDonald says, there are no rose-tinted spectacles; there is no spin, pretence or hyperbole. 'The participants speak honestly about what they do, why they do it, and what they think others can do to increase what I call their InQ, or innovation quotient.'
For McDonald, who specialises in transformational trends, talking to her interviewees was to receive a personal master class in entrepreneurial innovation. 'In sharing their experience and expertise, I was able to share an astonishing amount of information encapsulated in a mobile repository of insights and information on and innovation and innovators.'
As you flick through 'Innovation', some really big names leap out, and none bigger than Vint Cerf, Google vice president and co-inventor of the Internet. Along with 99'other inventors, engineers, strategists, economists and business gurus, Cerf's views help to construct a picture of how successful people think.
It would of course be interesting to know if there is anything that these high achievers have in common, beyond the obvious simplification that they are all pushing for success; is there anything we can practically learn from her interviewees that we can then apply to our own business cultures?
'If we are looking for commonalities, I would start with the idea that the people I interviewed don't draw their self worth from their job title. There is the commonality of a driving force, which compels and propels them to make positive change, on a major scale, through innovation.'
But if all we are saying is that driven people have the potential to do well, while those who do well are likely to be driven, then we're not really doing much more than scratching the surface in a rather pronounced circular fashion.
McDonald elaborates: 'They are 'do-ers' who have a great deal of personal courage. It may be that courage ' that willingness to stand out ' that differentiates them. It's not about having a genius gene. Innovative entrepreneurs are willing to bet the bank, as it were, sometimes at great personal cost. There's a level of stress attached to that. If you don't want to play those cards, don't get in the game.'
McDonald says that if there is one notion in the book that is worth the cover price alone, then it is that 'collaboration, cooperation and, perhaps most importantly, the cross-fertilisation of ideas and knowledge must be embraced' if we are to deliver innovation. McDonald admits that one of her findings is that this 'can come from anywhere and anyone ' often from the most unlikely sources', which is why it's useful to have such a broad spectrum of interviewees.
When considering the most important lessons she has learned from writing her book, McDonald reflects on David Pensak, former chief computer scientist at Dupont and inventor or the world's first firewall. 'He told me stories about playing in a sandbox with Albert Edison as a child and flying model airplanes with aerodynamics pioneer, Seymour Bogdonoff. He noted that rather than tell him the answer, they taught him how to ask the questions. 'That is a gift for which I will be grateful for as long as I'm breathing'.'
For sheer inspiration, McDonald draws on Nathan Myhrvold, who 'exemplifies my belief in the importance of cross-fertilising ideas, experiences and expertise.' Former CTO and chief strategist at Microsoft, Myhrvold worked with Professor Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, where he earned a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics. He has a masters in mathematical economics from Princeton and a masters in geophysics, space physics from UCLA. He also writes award-winning cookbooks and was part of a winning team at the World Championship of Barbecue.
McDonald quotes Myhrvold as saying: 'I have a lot of very different interests. Almost everybody who knows me, knows me in the context that isn't the complete me. But maybe that's for the better.'
However, the big coup for McDonald is the inclusion of Vint Cerf, whom she interviewed twice for the project. 'I found his comments regarding his work on the design and implementation of an interplanetary internet fascinating, as was learning about his involvement in designing a spacecraft that, could result in the development and launch of the first interstellar exploration mission.'
McDonald's final thought is to reflect that no one talks about Thomas Edison's failures. What they remember, she says, is that the world was presented with not just a working light bulb, but also a symbol of innovation that is as relevant today as ever it was.
In her book she makes the point that innovators constantly face failure. She sees innovation as a modern take on the myth of Sisyphus, where those brave enough to innovate are destined to push their big idea up the steep hill of potential, ever aware that it could easily roll back and crush them. But the willingness to take on the challenge is what separates them from the casual observers at the bottom of the hill busily explaining to anyone who will listen that they could have done that. *
'Innovation: how innovators think, act and change our world' by Kim Chandler McDonald is published by Kogan Page, £19.99