October 2009 - Posts

Welcome to the Innovation@Merage Blog
The Paul Merage School of Business is pleased to provide this blog for discussing information on all aspects of innovation and how it is impacting businesses and academics. We hope you will find our blog to be an engaging way to communicate about the latest topics on thought leadership.  

  • Deadlines and Daydreams

    Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, What the Dog Saw, I was struck by his descriptions of infomercial king Ron Popeil and the famous copywriter, Shirley Polykoff, who made hair coloring acceptable, and changed women’s looks for half a century. These were not middle-of-the-night inspiration people—they were hard workers who kept looking for new ideas and perfecting them for years. Or, as legendary dancer Paul Taylor says, in a profile in the New York Times, ”People think some muse comes down and strikes. Well, making a dance is just plain work like anything else. The inspiration is the deadline.” So which is it, deadlines or daydreams? Research is mixed. Real deadlines are important incentives, but too little time can stifle creative solutions. This weekend I scratched my cornea and couldn’t read. Without my daily fix of five newspapers, internet sites, weekly newsmagazines, professional journals and business books, I found myself full of ideas that had been rumbling around the back of my brain but hadn’t fully formed. Suddenly I knew how to tackle that weird transition in class, that emotional hitch in a consulting assignment, that tricky patch in a report. And then this morning in the Wall Street Journal, business book writer Pat Lencioni addressed the same issue. According to him, you need to block out creative time in every day. Even with deadlines, you’ll have better solutions if you let your mind drift, enjoying that walk or a long shower or staring out the window, instead of staring at your computer forcing yourself to THINK, DAMMIT. The truth, of course, like all things in life, is not simple. You need deadlines and daydreams, perspiration and inspiration, and the trick is finding the right balance.
  • No More Plain Vanilla

    Yesterday in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman’s column defined the new untouchables—the people who are in such demand that employers sacrifice to keep them, or who readily find new jobs in the worst economy. They are the top half of the class, he says, not the ones who can do routine engineering, but the innovative thinkers who create the new products. And today on MSNBC, Intel’s Paul Otellini showed off a vial of teeny, tiny chips, each with the computing power of the best laptops three years ago. Like Friedman, he said that entrepreneurial power comes from education—but the kind that equips people to invent instead of just learning the basics. Finally, Newsweek’s cover story is on changing education, from the idea that there is a set curriculum to the idea that school is to give you the tools to succeed in an everchanging world. I couldn’t agree more. In our Design and Innovation Management class (shameless plug here), we’ve opened it to continuous input from our FEMBA students. Last week, a Tweet from a student alerted us to a YouTube video about changing behavior by making a staircase into a live piano, which in turn we incorporated into our class as part of a workshop exercise that uses toys to inspire new ideas. Because we can’t possibly predict the future, the best education can prepare people by giving them the tools to be flexible, to build on the ideas of others, and to stay constantly alive to opportunities. I’d argue with Friedman that these skills are not just the whipped cream and the cherry on top, that thinking like an innovator is the only way to create the whole sundae.
  • Which one will change more lives?

    On the same day the world is mourning the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who started the green revolution that transformed Asia and saved billions of lives, the Wall Street Journal is also honoring the 2009 Technology Innovation winners. The Gold goes to a sensor that can instantly identify pathogens, even ones it hasn’t encountered before, potentially spotting and staving off the next pandemic. And there’s software that enables remote health workers to track health statistics via cell phone, potentially catching AIDS or Ebola early enough to stop it. There are solar stations for cell service, borrowing Ikea’s easy packaging and assembly techniques to make cell service a reality in villages reached by donkeys. There’s an artificial hand that actually works like a hand, and drywall with a small environmental footprint. There are speakers as thin as a credit card and a patch that uses electromagnetic energy for drug-free pain relief. There’s even a once-theoretical memory resistor that could make electronic devices so small and powerful we can’t even imagine them. The fascinating thing about all the winners, launched during a worldwide recession, is that any of them could be—or could lead to—a world as different from ours as the world pre-auto, pre-tv, pre-airplane, pre-internet, pre-cell world was from the place we live today. And we have absolutely no way of predicting which of these, or something else lurking behind the sparkling eyes of the inventor on the laptop next to you at the coffee shop, will be the one.
  • Think Small

    In Fortune Small Business magazine this month, the cover story features innovation in small business, and how to achieve it. And for those who think that innovation takes a large R & D budget, there are some eye-opening statistics: • Small business generates 13 times more patents than large business • Those patents are twice as likely to be among the top 1% of patents cited • 77% solicit ideas from customers, and act on them • 70% actively solicit ideas from their employees. In short, these tiny businesses are doing precisely what experts urge all businesses to do: adapt continuously to changing markets. The stories range from products like a single person commuter car to services, like life celebrations marketed by a funeral home, complete with Harley Davidsons, fishing poles and bingo games. There’s a detergent that actually gets rid of sweaty smells from hi-tech athletic clothes, invented by a guy with no background in chemistry or laundry. The keys are these: 1) know your history 2) lose the routine 3)use the brains you hired 4) get cozy with customers 5) share the load and 6) fail quickly. What drives them to follow these rules so successfully that 63% of small business owners have had eureka moments that changed their business? Necessity. They don’t have the luxury of losing money for years or ignoring bad performance. Or, as the director of the Institute for Innovation at the University of Michigan says, “ In an economic downturn, innovation isn’t your best friend. It’s your only friend.”