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April 28, 2009

What Predicts The Ability To Innovate? : Some Perspectives From Pixar


NASA had a problem.  What's the screening criteria for a job that's never been done before - like going to the moon? Namely how do you find those guys (and it was guys then) who have the highest predictive chance of success at something that has never been done before?  They found test/fighter pilots.  But in more general terms, they found a talent pool of people who had failed and recovered.  (It's rather apparent what happened to those who had failed and NOT recovered.)  The generalized criteria:  Error recovery (meaning resiliency and adaptability) and NOT failure avoidance. 

Now think about this same question in terms of today's media or technology companies - whether at the business or individual level. If innovation is determined as a key to differentiation and success, and innovation means doing something that has never been done before - then how do you define the talent criteria and what are the predictors?  Where and how do you find your version of "test pilots cum astronauts?"

Randy Nelson of Pixar provides an interesting take on this question, essentially breaking it down into four criteria.  The video and some key takeaways:

  • Depth: How do you find the "parallel predictor" of someone who will succeed at something new? Look at what else in life they have mastered on a personal or business level. "Mastery in anything is a good predictor in mastering the thing you want done."
  • Breath Breadth: Narrowness is sometimes the thing you get with depth and this needs to be balanced by breath.  You don't want a repetitive one trick pony again if the challenge is going to be to innovate.  You want "someone who is more interested than interesting."   This is indicative of a problem solver; someone who will lean into the problem not just acknowledge its existence.
  • Communication: "Communication is a destination, not a source." It is not something that the "emitter" can measure, although plenty of times we get that judgment.  Only the receiver of communication can measure it.  The listener is the one who can say they get it. 
  • Collaboration: "Collaboration is not a synonym for cooperation; it is not cooperation on steroids."  Innovation requires many people working together; it's not a one person job.  So you need a system or protocol that allows people not to get in each other's way and enables them to amplify what each is doing.

Lesson?  In the innovation economy, stop looking for someone who has done it before. Look for someone who has done something else amazing before (and not necessarily in the same business.)   Egv_tiny_blogicon




(Note: Thanks to Edward Boches, Chief Creative Officer of Mullen, for initially sharing this video via Twitter.) 





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Your post and Randy Nelson's video make stimulating points. Neuroscience would add to the mix that fear and risk aversion are barriers to innovative behavior. Dr. Gregory Berns, an authority of neuroeconomics, refers to innovators as "iconoclasts" and sees them as actually having different brain functions than "the average person's."

He notes that one of the problems with innovators or iconoclasts is that they are creative loners who often have to develop outside of the System, which does not ordinarily view their kind with warm hugs. He finds that it's a rare work environment where a manager encourages innovators to come forward because they feel safe. Berns also points out that these people often do not possess the kind of social intelligence that makes it all happen by themselves and that wise managers use strategies that integrate the powerful potential produced when idea people are paired with people who have the social skills. So, maybe it takes at least two collaborators to make innovation as you point out.

Back to NASA, fear may align in the astronaut or test pilot with adrenalin until it becomes excitement, even ecstasy and the kind of one-ness which often inspires great ideas. You run the gamut from the Neil Armstrong type who is in complete control to Buzz Aldrin who famously said of his colleague, "Neil may have been the first man to walk on the moon, but I was the first to piss in my pants!" Then, there is Ed Mitchell whose experiences inspired him to create the Institute of Noetic Sciences when he fell back to earth.

Our affinity for wearing corporate and sports team logos seems to indicate that our species still runs in tribes and packs, whether in social media clusters, fan sites, affinities and communities of specialized interest or gangs in South Central LA. The introduction of the "Outsider", the subject of Colin Wilson's great, classic work--and the final lesson you draw from Randy--can only stir the pot and upset the status quo. The force of the wild card draw and spanner in the works are factors that reset the game--even if there is a cost to precious predictability and the illusion of order.

Kevin -
What an amazing and thoughtful comment. Glad that this post and Randy's talk (via video) struck a chord. For those who would like to read more of what Kevin has to say on this and many other cultural subjects, I highly recommend his blog http://www.tribalmedia.blogspot.com/

I'm hoping this means 'breadth' and not 'breath' - I'm not sure you'll find anyone that will be successful without breath :)
And I disagree a bit about someone being able to master something therefore they can master something else; if the characteristics of both things are similar enough it can help be a predictor, but many times it's too hard to distinguish how a person achieved mastery of something for it to be a predictor of success.

Breathing is also highly desirable in a candidate, but I think you mean "breadth" instead of "breath"

LH and Jeremy - Thanks for finding the typo and for the humor. :-)

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Liz Gebhardt

  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.