I is for innovation

By Sharon Dotan

I recently attended the Canadian Innovation Exchange (aka CIX) and heard a wonderful keynote by Bill Buxton, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, and a passionate advocate for innovation. So what exactly is innovation? We usually think of innovation as an “Aha!” moment (as Oprah would say) that an individual has. We think of Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone. We think of Thomas Edison and his many patented inventions (well over 1,000). But is this the reality of innovation? Buxton says no. Most of Edison’s patents in fact, were simply improvements made on an original idea thought up and created by others. Innovation is a team sport! And to be innovative, you need to stack your team with great individuals that bring a variety of skill sets from across the board. Think of hockey – you can’t just have all the top goalies on your team and expect to be a winning team – no matter how good all those goalies are, you’ll still have a losing team without good forwards and defensemen.

Buxton tells us to build your team with “I” shaped people. Like the letter “I”, these people have their head (the top part of the “I) in the clouds – they are dynamic, creative, and always dreaming up new ideas. Yet, they have their feet (the bottom part of the “I”) firmly grounded in the practical world – they are realistic, hands-on, and proactive. And most importantly, they can span all the space between these two worlds.

Finally, with a great team in place, where do we find innovation? Buxton refers to the analogy of gold – you can’t just “make” it – it’s already in the ground. And so, the process begins with prospecting – being able to find the gold in the ground within all that other “dirt”. Once you find the gold, you have to know how to mine it, refine it, and finally goldsmith it – turn the gold into something worth more than its weight in gold.

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