Who's the mother of invention?

Innovation is a theme of FI Center and of FISpace. It’s also a topic getting attention today nationally because, whatever their position on the “offshoring” issue, virtually everyone agrees that future prosperity in the US depends on being innovative, not on commodity ideas and labor. Also, the pharmaceutical industry about which I’m writing is having a crisis over innovation—or, rather, the lack thereof.

So here’s an article from Technology Review about…

the former head of Microsoft research, Nathan Myhrvold, and his current enterprise to generate true invention and breakthroughs in new technology. Myhrvold maintains that corporations (like Microsoft, I guess) really stifle rather than encourage invention. When the say “think outside the box” they really mean “not too far outside the box.” (My reaction when I hear someone use the tired, hackneyed expression “think outside the box” is it ain’t gonna happen until they come up with a more original way to tell people they should be creative.) Most “innovation” desired is just enhancement to what already exists, not breakthroughs. Often organizations really don’t know what to do with real creativity.

Says Myhrvold: “Invention is the secret sauce. It has the highest concentration of value compared with any task in a company. But because it’s so risky, it also has the lowest amount of focused effort.”

Invention and innovation are becoming a kind of cottage industry. Myhrvold and others are setting up invention enterprises. Even bigger corporations are so hungry for something new they’re trying new approaches. For instance:

Even young firms like Google, in Mountain View, CA, are getting into the act: the search engine leader encourages employees to devote 20 percent of their time to developing their own far-out ideas. The belief at such companies is that creative people are fueled by freedom to find problems that interest them. “Our employees are coming up with ideas anyway,” says Google cofounder Sergey Brin. “We just provide them with time to test whether those ideas work.”