Paul Witkay: Designing for innovation

Paul Witkay, founder and CEO, Alliance of Chief Executives

Ever since I began bringing CEOs together in 1996, I’ve been on a quest to learn how CEOs could create more breakthrough ideas more frequently and reliably. I’ve read hundreds of books on strategy, management, leadership, creativity, innovation, group dynamics and even neuroscience to find the best ways to extract the most value from the unbelievably deep pool of wisdom and creativity of our Alliance community.

Recently, I read “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson. Johnson does a deep dive into the history of innovation from Darwin to Freud to Google and Apple, identifying seven key patterns that create the most fertile grounds for innovation. The following concepts are consistent with how we design Alliance meeting environments to maximize the creation of great new ideas and further vision to be the most innovative and strategically valuable organization for CEOs on the planet.

  • Scientist Stuart Kauffman describes the “adjacent possible” concept, which says although the world is capable of extraordinary change, innovation happens on the edges. The history of life and human culture is a story of gradual but relentless probing of the boundaries, and each new innovation opens up new paths to explore. The best Alliance members push the boundaries to create breakthrough ideas for their fellow members.
  • Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great book called “Blink,” which discussed the power of intuition, or the instant hunch. However, Johnson found that world-changing ideas are more often the result of what he calls the “slow hunch.” Slow hunches start with a vague, hard-to-describe sense that an interesting solution to a problem exists. However, these hunches typically linger in the shadows of our minds — sometimes for decades — with additional pieces of information gathering together. Then one day the discovery of a new idea completes the puzzle and blossoms into the aha moment that has incubated for years.
  • Serendipity can be described as a happy accident. Serendipitous discoveries typically involve exchanges across different disciplines. One core philosophy of the Alliance has been to fill our private Alliance groups with members who bring diverse experiences from different industries, business models, functional skills and other measures of diversity.
  • Berkeley professor Charlan Nemeth investigated the relationship between noise, dissent and creativity in group environments. She found a paradoxical truth about innovation: Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain noise and error. While we would think that innovation would be more strongly correlated with the values of accuracy, clarity and focus and that good ideas should be correct to have value, noise-free environments are too sterile and predictable to maximize creativity. A few errors in the process of discovery actually helps foster the creation of good ideas.
  • Stanford professor Martin Ruef studied the relationship between business innovation and diversity of professions and disciplines. Ruef discovered that the most creative individuals had broad social networks that extended outside of their own organizations and involved people from diverse fields of expertise. Diverse, horizontal social networks were three times more innovative than the standard networks, which include people more similar to ourselves. Long-term familiarity, conformity and convention dampen potential creative sparks, whereas entrepreneurs who build bridges outside their own industries borrow or co-opt new ideas from the outside and put them to use in a new context.
  • Psychologist Kevin Dunbar studied research scientists to determine how and when they achieved breakthroughs. What he found is that eureka moments rarely happened when they were thinking on their own but most often during regular meetings with their lab peers. The most productive tool for generating good ideas was a circle of humans at a table. This “liquid network” is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart. It’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.

Paul Witkay is the founder and CEO of the Alliance of Chief Executives. Based in Northern California, the Alliance of CEOs is the most strategically valuable and innovative organization for CEOs in the world. Paul can be contacted at [email protected]

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