Some Thoughts on Innovation

by Kareem Carr

Recently, I was having a discussion with a friend about the work world and where salaried workers fit into it. His point of view was similar to a notion I’d heard before. It went something like ‘if the choices are: working for yourself, or working for somebody else; it’s best to work for yourself.’ My first reaction was that I didn’t really like what I perceived as the underlying framing. I came away with this sense that he saw the relationship between workers and those who pay them as an adversarial relationship. However, I believe one can both work for someone else and also work for oneself i.e. construct mutually beneficial work relationships. Moreover, the greater flaw in this train of thought, in my opinion, is it is red herring. The crux of personal advancement, as I see it, is not in whether one is working for another or working for oneself. It is in whether one is making a profit, that is, whether one is steadily leveraging one’s current knowledge, influence and accessible resources in order to increase one’s future knowledge, influence and accessible resources.

So what is my idea? Well, I frame it this way. In any productive endeavor, I can identify at least 9 steps:

1. Make a decision to do more with what you have.

2. Begin looking for situations which you think might be worth pursuing.

3. Identify the ones that a worth pursuing.

4. Gather the elements needed: people, money, meeting room, food etc.

5. Figure out how to use the elements effectively.

6. Use the elements effectively for the period of time necessary to start get things done. (Manage well and stick with it.)

7. Identify the quality of your results

8. Get other people interested in what you have produced.

9. Finish with more than what you started with.

Now, I know some might read this list and find it a bit redundant. Why, in several places, did I separate being able to recognize or identify what needs to be done and actually doing it? Well, for me, this is the difference between a coach, who knows how to advise an athlete, but who isn’t necessarily able to perform at the level needed to take advantage of this knowledge as a player; and a player, who might be able to perform amazingly, but isn’t fully aware of everything he might be capable of or how to attain his best performance.

This takes me back to the original discussion with my friend. I think it’s typical for the entry level worker to be in stage 5 somewhere. They have a particular skill-set which they can use to contribute to some pre-existing project. The rest of the business is all the other stages. In order to have a functioning operation, I feel that one would need to get all the steps right; and I find it quite impressive when someone can get all of these steps right, whether in the work environment or in the rest of life outside of work.

These ideas can be related to being a graduate student. I think as students, we too are often most comfortable in stage 5. Once someone else or the community has identified an important problem or line of research and has gotten together the research team or the funding or whatever needs to be done, we are able to contribute to a particular aspect requiring original work. As we progress through our research careers, what we are really learning (or should be) is how to progress beyond stage 5. It can be difficult to pursue your own ideas. This might be due to limited resources such as knowledge, money, time and so on.

However, I think quite often we aren’t even trying to do the other steps. We consider skills such as convincing other people to like our projects or to get excited about them as being trivial. We may start a project and try to do all the parts by ourselves, ignoring the potential resources that other people represent. We may stall on a particular aspect of our project, because we aren’t willing to pay someone to do it. We bury our noses in our books and are oblivious to the opportunities in the environment around us.

At the risk of sounding too much like a Pollyanna, the good thing is we can always start to take the other aspects of innovation more seriously at any time. It begins with step one.

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