The Three C’s of Innovation: Combination, Collaboration, and Chance

Provost Lloyd B. Minor
June 7, 2011
Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Reception for Principal Professional Staff
Laurel, Maryland

As prepared for delivery

[Introduction by Ralph Semmel, Director, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory]

Thank you, Ralph, for your kind welcome, and for asking me to join you this evening. Congratulations to those who have been newly appointed Principal Professional Staff.

I’d like to start off my remarks tonight with a test. I will name three words and I want you to come up with a fourth word that relates to each of the other three words. Let’s start with an easy one: cream, skate, water. Did you come up with ice? Now try this one: safety, cushion, point? The answer? Pin. Now, let’s end with a hard one: rain, test, stomach. I hope a few of you came up with acid.

These problems are modeled after the Remote Associates Test developed by psychologist Sarnoff Mednick in 1962 as a means of measuring creative thought. Recent normative data has found that if you were an average audience, in two seconds about one-third of you would have come up with the correct answer to the first problem, one-fourth of you for the second problem, and only 1 in 100 of you would have come up with the last problem—acid for rain, test, stomach. Subsequent research has shown that success on these problems reliably correlates with success on classic insight problems. In my remarks tonight, I’ll talk about why this might be the case.

Recently I have been doing a lot of reading and thinking about innovation, and that’s the topic I would like to talk about tonight. It is daunting, and perhaps more than a little bold, for me to talk about innovation to an audience such as we have assembled here tonight, but I hope you will indulge me as I share a few of my initial thoughts and observations.

I hope that my words lead to a conversation here and across the university about innovation and how we as individuals and as an institution can foster innovative thinking and creative solutions to difficult problems. I hope, too, that you share with me your thoughts on what has made APL such an innovative environment. Tonight I would like to argue that innovation is the result of three C’s—combination, collaboration, and chance.

Innovation is often viewed as the result of a flash of original insight or inspiration. The reality, however, is more pedestrian. Innovation exploits the past, looking forward by looking backward and sideways. Innovation is fundamentally the combination—complex and often unpredictable—of phenomena, facts, concepts, variables, constants, techniques, theories, laws, questions, goals, and criteria. Elvis’s rock ’n’ roll combined gospel music with rhythm and blues. Gutenberg’s movable type borrowed from Chinese playing cards and wine presses.

While originality may be the result of innovation, it is not the means to that end. With its introduction of the Swiffer in 1999, Proctor & Gamble revolutionized household cleaning. The Swiffer was also an instant commercial success. Today it’s P&G’s second most popular consumer product, sold in more than 15 countries with annual sales of $500 million. But revolutionary doesn’t necessarily mean novel. In fact, Swiffer’s electrostatic cloth was an idea borrowed from a technology being used by firefighters to clean up ashes without using water. Not that you would find this fact proudly referenced on the company’s website. As Einstein said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

Mass production of the Model T by Ford Motor Company required a lot of borrowing—from interchangeable parts to continuous work flow. The idea for the moving assembly line came from an unlikely source: Chicago slaughterhouses. Since 1873, Chicago meatpackers had been using overhead trolleys to move suspended carcasses past a line of stationary workers. In this “disassembly” line, each worker butchered a piece of a diminishing carcass. William Klann, head of the engine department at Ford, toured the Swift meatpacking plant in Chicago and came back with the observation, “If they can kill pigs and cows that way, we can build cars that way.”

In 1913, the Ford Motor Company installed its first moving assembly line at its Highland Park factory. A motor and rope pulled the chassis past workers and parts on the factory floor. By 1914, continuous improvement had whittled the time required for assembly from twelve-and-a-half hours before the moving assembly line to 93 minutes. It was so fast that only Japan Black paint would dry fast enough, leading Henry Ford to remark, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it’s black.”

The assembly line transformed industry and allowed the cost of the Model T to fall within the budget of the American middle class. In a patent dispute over the true inventor of the automobile, Ford testified that he had not looked forward but backward, “I invented nothing new. I simply assembled in a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. … So it is with every new thing. … To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst kind of nonsense.” To say that an innovation borrowed is not to discredit the innovation in any way but rather to make a statement about the nature of innovation.

Johns Hopkins critical care specialist Peter Pronovost has become internationally known for the humble checklist. For inserting a central-line, he devised a five-step checklist. Step one: wash hands with soap. Step two: clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic. Step three: put sterile drapes over the entire patient. Step four: wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves. Step five: apply sterile dressing over the catheter site. It was incredibly simple but powerful. In Michigan ICUs, the checklist decreased the rate of central-line infections by sixty-six percent, virtually eliminating this deadly infection. The idea was revolutionary, rightly earning Peter a MacArthur “genius grant” and a spot among Time’s 100 most influential people in 2008.

But the idea of safety checklists in complex life-and-death situations was introduced in 1935. That was the year that Boeing demonstrated the prototype for its B-17 bomber to the U.S. Army Air Corps. The B-17 could carry five times as many bombs as the Army had requested and it could fly faster and almost twice as far as previous bombers, but on an October morning at Wright Air Field in Dayton, Ohio, with the military brass looking on, the aircraft stalled soon after takeoff and crashed in a fiery explosion. An investigation revealed that the pilot had forgotten to release the elevator lock before flight. Newspapers called the B-17 “too much airplane for one man to fly.” Boeing nearly went bankrupt, but the company, and the B-17, were saved when Boeing created a pilot’s checklist for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing. Pilots went on to fly the B-17 for more than 1.8 million miles without a mishap. The army ordered 13,000 B-17s, giving the U.S. a decisive air advantage in World War II.

A creative and innovative mind must be able to connect meatpacking and car making; aviation and surgery; cream, skate, and water. William James said, “Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.” It’s not surprising, then, that innovators typically have a diversity of interests and hobbies; are open to experience; and prefer complexity and ambiguity.

In popular imagination, the history of invention and innovation is the story of individual innovators—the story of the singular genius of James Watt, Eli Whitney, Samuel Colt, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford. But even the very greatest scientists—Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein—were always engaged in important and fundamental collaboration with their contemporaries. Innovation is about combining, but it is also about collaboration.

Perhaps no one illustrates the outsized reputation of the lone genius better than Thomas Edison. In his book How Breakthroughs Happen, engineer and management Professor Andrew Hargadon shows us that this idea is romantic myth. Edison worked as part of a collective, deeply dependent on the creativity of the fifteen people he worked in close collaboration with at his Menlo Park laboratory in New Jersey. Edison and his lab worked deliberately to perpetuate the myth of the lone genius, exploiting the power of the Edison name to win patents, investors, and standards wars. It was a myth the public readily accepted. We, like our patent laws and history textbooks, prefer to attach a single name and date to every invention. But innovation is rarely so neat.

Someone once asked the billionaire J. Paul Getty, “Mr. Getty, what’s the secret of your success?” Getty answered, “Rise early. Work late. Strike oil.” This quote reminds us that sometimes even with all the right elements in place, you still need a little bit of good luck. Combining and collaborating, borrowing and bridging may be necessary for innovation, but they may not be sufficient. Despite centuries of trying to come up with a precise formula for innovation, we must accept the role of chance. To do so acknowledges the presence of so many complex and interacting factors. Innovation is messy and unpredictable.

In science, we have a wonderful word for the happy accidents of chance: serendipity. The annals of science are full of serendipitous inventions or discoveries: the New World, ozone, dynamite, phonograph, vaccination, X-rays, radioactivity, classical conditioning, penicillin, sulfa drugs, LSD, Teflon, Velcro, superglue, microwave ovens, and even Viagra.

There are tales of serendipity in Johns Hopkins’ history as well. One night in June 1878, chemist Constantin Fahlberg sat down for dinner after a day studying coal tar derivatives as a visiting fellow in the lab of Johns Hopkins Professor Ira Remsen. While eating some bread, he noticed a particularly sweet taste on his hands. So he ran back to the lab and tasted everything on his bench—beakers, vials, and dishes—until he found the sweet taste in the syrupy mass of an over-boiled beaker. He had discovered the first commercially viable alternative to cane sugar.

In 1985, Johns Hopkins Professor Peter Agre and his colleagues were studying the Rh blood group antigen when a second protein kept mysteriously appearing, a previously undiscovered molecule. Years later, Peter would discover that the purpose of this molecule is to regulate the flow of water in cells. In 2003 he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his serendipitous discovery of aquaporins, thus ending more than a century of controversy in biology about how water moved through cells.

Psychologist Dean Simonton argues that quality is a probabilistic function of quantity. A genius is a genius because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, observations, and connections. Creative and innovative people come up with more right answers but more wrong ones, too. Simonton has found that scientists who publish the most highly cited works also publish the most poorly cited works. Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

As I reflect on my own discovery in 1998 of superior canal dehiscence, I can see the three C’s come together. My discovery of this debilitating disorder characterized by sound- and pressure- induced dizziness required basic research and clinical investigation; mathematics, neurophysiology, biomedical engineering, and imaging science; and the collaboration of colleagues in multiple settings from conception of the problem to the application of the surgical solution. Serendipity played a role, too, for my discovery would not have been possible had I not made the observation that the eyes of these patients did not move randomly when they were exposed to loud noises or changes in pressure but rather moved in the plane of one of the inner ear balance canals.

Combination, collaboration, and chance are the stuff of innovation, but how can we as individuals and as an institution foster the three C’s?

First, give people time, freedom, and autonomy to take big chances and, ultimately, make big discoveries. Freedom means that we can sometimes set courses that are both wrongheaded and expensive to correct, and autonomy can allow redundancies and inefficiencies to proliferate. But the blessing of a chaotic system is that it is so diverse and so open to different approaches. Over the long term, it will foster the experimentation and innovation needed to allow us to address challenges and seize opportunities.

In a very real sense, we need to encourage failure, learning as well as unlearning. Sometimes your knowledge can hold you back. Of the physicists who came together to form the Applied Physics Laboratory in 1942, the late Alexander Kossiakoff, a former APL director and Johns Hopkins alumnus, said, “For the proximity fuze, it was lucky that they didn’t understand engineering very well because they would never have attempted to build a little radio in the nose of an artillery shell accelerated at twenty thousand times the force of gravity. The Germans and the British both started to develop such a fuze but gave it up.” Those closest to Einstein—Mach, Planck, Lorentz—did not fully embrace his work because they were too close to it, too committed to what they had known before.

Allow ideas to incubate, allow some time for the mind to be free to seemingly irrelevant influences. Good ideas often come to us in dreams or while we’re falling asleep, in the shower, or driving. There is a calm state that precedes a flash of insight—when your brain is relaxed and wandering instead of focused on a particular problem; defocused attention reduces latent inhibitions.

Insights come from contrasting points of view. Legendary American film producer Samuel Goldwyn said, “If two of you agree, then one of you is redundant.” Though few would concur with this statement, it does remind us of the importance of diversity. Different people bring different experiences, assumptions, values, beliefs, and habits to their work. Innovation is a product of these differences. Appoint people who might constructively disagree with you. Let people challenge you.

Innovation is messy and complex, and fostering an innovative environment—fostering the three C’s—is never easy, but the need for innovative solutions has never been greater. We encounter major challenges in our world today: sustainable energy and the environment, the global water crisis, the promise of individualized health, and the challenge of an urbanizing world. The modern research university, I believe, is uniquely equipped to grapple with these challenges.

Here at Johns Hopkins we have the tools, we have the minds, the expertise, the skills and experience needed to discover innovative solutions to age-old problems. Meeting these challenges requires bringing people and ideas together in new and creative ways. In so many areas the engineer and the physicist and the mathematician are continuing to work together as they did so successfully here in 1942. But now they are joined by the genomic scientist, the sociologist, the public policy specialist, and by experts in so many other fields, all working together to take on problems of enormous magnitude and complexity.

I am delighted that APL will be playing a key role in several exciting interdisciplinary initiatives under way at Johns Hopkins—individualized health and the science of learning. Such initiatives bring together multiple disciplines to take up profoundly complex issues that can be solved no other way. With a little bit of luck, these combinations and collaborations will lead to great insights that will allow us to answer the future’s urgent call.

I am so pleased to have been asked to join you this evening, and I’d now be pleased to hear your comments and answer your questions. Thank you.