Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Innovation: Strategy or Serendipity?

Can you plan innovation or get good at being lucky?

In my last blog I wrote about my buddy Dave Green, CEO of Boston based Harvard Bioscience and pioneer of regenerative medical equipment.  (Scroll down or go to July 25th entry at http://mattkingdon.blogspot.com/ ) Last week Dave and I had a long conversation about how the development of his stem cell bioreactor actually happened.  I was interested in the detail of where the idea came from and how he got it ‘over the line’.   What he told me confirmed a long held belief I have about innovation - that it’s more fruitful to see it as a game of ‘managed serendipity’ than strategy.

So here’s the story in a nutshell:  As far back as 2004, CEO Dave Green became fascinated with regenerative medicine and the power of harvesting human stem cells to recreate tissue and eventually functioning organs.  Dave’s interest and vision for the company was well known throughout his business.  But it wasn't until 2008 that three of Dave’s sales team mentioned to him on separate occasions that customers were requesting unusual modifications to Harvard’s equipment. In each case the customers were asking for Harvard’s product to be super-sterilised.  As Dave says “I got curious and called the customers myself, why did they want us to modify our kit?  I found they were all trying to do the same thing, the race was on to grow bits of humans and they were using our equipment to do it!”  At the same time as Dave was quizzing his customers he read an article in the Lancet about surgeon Paolo Macchiarini who was pioneering in this field. “So I called him up, jumped on a plane to Italy to meet him and the rest is history, we ended up licensing the bioreactor invention”.  Now Dave’s 100 year old medical supplies company is morphing into the leader in this fast moving and exciting new field. 

What’s fascinating about this story is Dave’s self commentary on the process: “I’m struggling to see where and how we innovated, this felt like the antithesis of the creative process, there were lots of us, lots of analysis, no eureka moment, no crazy genius, no burning platform – we just got on and did it”.  I’ve heard this before – the innovator doesn’t think they have been that innovative, just got on and grabbed what felt at the time like a pretty obvious opportunity and diligently delivered on it, whereas to the outsider the same activity looks like a spectacular act of innovation, almost genius.

Digging deeper into Dave’s story I notice several critical activities:

1.       He was fascinated in regen medicine, held many meetings to discuss it - effectively he primed his team to be on the look out for any angle, any opening into this new branch of science.

2.   He sat near the sales team, it was easy for his guys to wander in and say “hey boss, I just had a weird request…”

3.    Dave is pretty widely read, but not only did he make a connection to the article in the Lancet he had the guts to make a call, drop everything, get on a plane and seal a deal.  No process, no form filling, no committees, just the CEO making a decision.

I think these are significant.  What Dave was doing was creating an environment in which ‘happy accidents’ can end up driving company innovation strategy.  Think about the critical elements here – CEO is personally engaged with company products (so everyone at work’s antennae is primed), CEO throws up a vision but not the solution (so people at work bring ideas to him), CEO is physically proximate (makes it easy to wander into his office), CEO reads beyond his brief, can make ‘adjacent leaps’ and CEO takes personal responsibility for landing the deal (only he had the power to do this).

Serendipity is what happens when you discover something really great but not exactly what you were expecting.  It happens to the ‘prepared but open’ mind and to those who can capitalise fast on their discovery.  (The link between serendipity and innovation is strong; Alexander Flemming pioneered anti-biotics when he accidentally left a petri dish of staphylococcus bacteria open and mold grew that appeared to kill the bacteria).  But serendipity isn’t the same as luck, it’s based on lots of hard work and clear thinking.  What might look like a happy accident is actually the result of setting a vision, lots of communication, exploring beyond the brief and critically swift decision making. 

PS: At school I was told Issac Newton was sitting under an apple tree and the falling apple caused the theory of gravity to pop into his head.  Clearly I shouldn't have gone to school and had Wikipedia existed I’d be better off as I’d have found out that Newton had been grappling with various theories of physics for years when one day he recalled apples falling in his grandmother’s orchard.  He was also connected and wealthy enough to drive his theory ‘over the line’ and launch it to world.