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Sustainable Innovation Stems From Individuals, Not A Group

Brainstorming with colleagues is great, but sometimes the best way to think of a world-changing idea is to disappear into your own thoughts.

I went to art school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. I don’t think I heard the word "innovation" uttered one single time during the happy four years I spent there. But just by virtue of having to make things by hand and govern the entire process from sketch to physical prototype or finished piece of art, we were innovating. The only constraints were the limits of our imaginations and gravity. In many cases, we were taking something that existed before—the idea of a painting (why not try maple syrup, which would attract insects and change and biodegrade over time?), a cell phone (why can’t it be dematerialized into jewelry?)—and putting our own imprint on it, tweaking to make it newer, or smarter, or to invoke a different idea or feeling.

My process as an artist was solitary. Our class studio was open floor plan, but our individual spaces were separated by sheetrock walls, and unless I heard the Velvet Underground on repeat or a humming dremel across the room, I was blissfully alone. I was graded for my own work—not the work of a group. I had full control of the process and the success or failures of my ideas.

Fast-forward 10 years to me in business school, where on the first day I was told that save for final exams, all my work would be done in groups. There was no room for star performers—only team players. But these teams were made up entirely of star performers, mostly extroverts, all competing for dominance or actively subjugating the urge to be in control.

But individuals can be successful; last year I met one of my personal design heroes—a guy whose process is a lot like mine. Eiji Nakatsu was chief designer of the Shinkansen bullet train for Japan Rail. Faced with the challenge of creating a super-fast and super-quiet locomotive design, he found inspiration in solitude—specifically, in his hobby of birdwatching. The early train designs created a big wall of pressure and resulting noise when they emerged from a narrow tunnel on the existing line. How could he design a face of the train that would allow wind to slip by, rather than create that noisy pressure wave? The kingfisher was his answer. Its head and beak are an exquisite design that allows the bird to go from a low-density environment (the air), to a high-density one (water) with little loss in speed. Also inspiring to Nakatsu was an owl’s serrated wing feathers, which allow it to silently fly to hunt its prey.

I knew with my non-typical working style, I had to find the right company. If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be writing this article in a cubicle of a Fortune 1000 company, I’d have laughed. Carl Bass, my company’s (Autodesk) CEO, argues that innovation is about individuals, not about a company culture. He says you need to hire smart people to get really creative outcomes—not rely on innovation consultants, innovation labs, or a "culture of innovation" to get those great results. The source of creativity is the individuals who make up the company, but their ideas can’t become real without the support and resources of the whole. (See here for his talk on this at TEDxBerkeley.)

In my quest to be a better corporate contributor, I’ve tried to become more group-oriented and step out of my comfort zone, but it has sometimes felt stifling. I missed my old artist mode of idea generation where I could go after new ideas with autonomy.

So before the December holidays, I did a little experiment and took what I called an "innovation vacation." I didn’t schedule meetings, I worked alone at home, and I turned off the phone and tried my best to stay off of email. That time on my own—thinking, researching, reaching out to folks who might teach me something—was incredible. I worked early in the morning, then late at night. I ate a lot of delivered pizza and blared a lot of rock and roll just like I did in art school. I went deep on how engineers problem-solve and made some interesting leaps past the shallow thinking I was only able to achieve between meetings and conference calls. I called colleagues all over the world who I’d never met. I spent time marveling over what the best and brightest manufacturers were doing.

I left that week with an idea for a new software tool to encourage greener product design. We’re about halfway through the first cycle of the project, and I can’t wait to start testing with customers. Sometimes innovation happens when you’re not fighting your core nature.

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