Many of my clients are keen to accelerate innovation within their organizations. This has led me to focus on the question of how organizations can boost creativity, and I have been looking for fresh insights on this topic.
Professor York Winter is one of the most innovative people I know. I have known him for more than 30 years and his steady stream of ideas always inspires me. This past week York gave a tour of the Humbolt University campus in Berlin where he does his research. We also had a chance to see his company PhenoSys, where he and his team are manufacturing leading edge lab equipment that supports research teams around the world. [The photo above shows an intriguing example: a virtual reality environment for a mouse].
York spoke about some of the articles he and his teams have written, and which have appeared in Nature, Science and other prestigious publications. Articles about UV vision in bats, about aerodynamic properties of the flight of bats, about decision algorithms in animals – all underpinned by ingenious experiments crafted to glean new insights. As I have followed York’s career over three decades I have been struck by his creative thinking in two related areas. First, the design and manufacturing of very sophisticated lab equipment that automates advanced animal experiments using data analytics and machine learning, thereby greatly accelerating the generation of new insight. And second, the design and execution of experiments that wrest new insight from the fascinating world around us.
As we walked from lab to lab at the campus, I used the opportunity to explore how York thinks about the creative process and what inspires him. I figure there might be something here that could be transferrable. So, what did I learn? I distilled five characteristics of York’s mindset and behaviors that seem to fuel the steady stream of new ideas.
First, York spends quality time scanning his environment: reading broadly, going to conferences, and speaking with diverse people. As he does so, he is always looking for connection points – perhaps the connection of a solution component to a challenge, perhaps the connection of two solution components that can be integrated to create something much more powerful. This is a deep habit that is on auto-pilot most of the time. It is driven by York’s intense, natural intellectual curiosity.
Second, York spends time in quiet introspection: looking at a challenge from multiple angles, pondering how the challenge might be reformulated or how it might be attacked differently.
Third, York looks for step change. He is less inspired by incremental change than he is by step change that truly opens new doors. That means that he sets high quality standards for himself and his teams. Sometimes, this leads to him spending years on a problem before accepting that the current time is not right to solve this problem, and then parking the problem. But often, it leads to truly inspiring designs that represent real breakthroughs.
Fourth, York works as part of a team. He is a key member of several teams. And he often serves as an integrator on these teams. With his combination of knowledge of physics, electronics, computer science and biology, he has the conceptual apparatus to sketch his ideas to other team members and to integrate the contributions of the experts that he recruits.
Fifth, York is not afraid of failure. He pursues a lot of ideas and is relaxed about the fact that some of them will not pan out – at least not for now. York engages in a constant process of filtering – driven to some extent by what inspires him at any one moment. He has found this to be a good guide to what will actually make a difference.
I left our campus tour with a big smile on my face. It had been fun to see the bats and the labs engaged in automated diagnosis. It had been intriguing to see the high-tech equipment with the ingenious contraptions for training research animals. But most of all, it had been inspiring to watch the passion York displays as he shared his love of what he is doing.
I am convinced that there are learnings we can glean from people like York. I am also convinced that personal passion is a powerful fuel with few substitutes. Perhaps our best approach is to stimulate young people in an attempt to ignite the passion and then to search out those special individuals where the spark has ignited a roaring flame.