Saturday, 2 June 2012

Real Innovation can leave you outside the Box

I recently found an old blog by Ron Bieber which quoted Niccolo Machiavelli in the context of being innovative:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

Ron then goes on to quote Scott Berkun's book The Myths of Innovation:

The dirty little secret – the fact often denied – is that unlike the mythical epiphany, real creation is sloppy. Discovery is messy; exploration is dangerous. No one knows what he’s going to get when he is being creative. ... Creative work cannot fit neatly into plans, budgets, and schedules. Magellan, Lewis and Clark, and Captain Kirk were all sent on missions into the unknown with clear understanding that they might not return with anything, or even return at all.

The problem is that you are not always sure when you are being creative – and can step outside the box by accident. That is what happened in the research that led to An Evolutionary Model of the Brain's Internal Language.

The whole thing started by accident because I had significant manual work experience of handling complex information processing tasks. I moved into the computer industry in 1965 and tentatively suggested to my employer that we might get better results if we built systems which worked in the way people do, rather than ones which worked by processing numbers with predefined algorithms, and added - “Here's is how it might be done.”

I had no idea I was suggesting anything revolutionary – to me it was just common sense. I had not even realise that I was questioning the establishment of a computer elite who “were cleverer than everyone else.” Int most organisations I would simply been told that that is impossible and to concentrate on “serious work.” It was a matter of (???bad??) luck that I was working in the same company as two of the pioneers of UK computing who asked me to expand on my ideas – and on seeing the results rushed me into research with a useful budget. After a couple of years I had shown the basic idea worked but the department was closed down without assessment in a company merger. I was given the option of either dropping the idea entirely or moving the research to a university with the company blessing – but no actual support.

I had no comprehension of how dangerous it would prove to enter the scientific rat race for support and funding with a project that way outside the “acceptable computer science” box, or how inappropriate it would be to join a university department which paid well but which had with a very low research rating. As someone who is naturally a quiet hard back-room boy, working best as one of a team with clear leadership, I was temperamentally ill-equipped for the battle. The project eventually collapsed because I didn't have the stamina to continue against significant ill-informed critism and not because the project was flawed.

So was my original idea valid? Could it really be that computers have taken off so quickly that more human-friendly architectures were never explored because by the 1960s the new establishment elite thought an alternative way was impossible? Could our understanding of the brain be improved by starting with the assumption that we are little more than animals with an enlarged organ - and not really being that special?

If you apply the normal criteria for assessing innovative research I don't tick any of the right boxes – I am an individual - I am now over 70 – I am retired with no membership of an academic institution, much less a prestigious one lead by top establishment scientists. In any case you will be shouting out that it is obvious that significant claims need significant proof - significant proof requires significant funding – and as I have no money I can't make a significant claim..

So by definition (or is it no more than the current establishment convention) I am incapable of creative scientific research and any ideas I have must be wrong. -- Or perhaps all the current ideas about where and how creative scientific research originate are held in a self-justifying box – in that anything which is outside that box is automatically excluded from getting enough support to prove that it is valid.

1 comment:

  1. Chris, Thanks for the comment on the blog and the reference to the article. The whole point of Scotts book is to point out that current "conventional" thinking on what innovation is is false - that it is a creative and iterative process that may include many failures and may lead you somewhere that you didn't originally expect. Its geared towards managers who think that if they fund a new idea, it should just automatically be successful and explains, very well, that that is not the case at all. Innovation is messy - not structured - and it often yields the unexpected.

    Name one person that has truly innovated and changed the way we live or work that fit "in the box" of how people think about innovation. Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Tesla - none of them fit - and none of them "received budget" for what they were doing in the beginning. Thats the point. Conventional thinking and budgeting practices don't fit with innovation, because innovation is messy.