Thursday, May 29, 2014

Invitation to the Pain of Innovating

By Randall S. Wright
Senior Liaison Officer 

I sat in Legal Sea Foods in Kendall Square just on the edge of the MIT campus listening to Bill tell me about his company’s latest open innovation needs list. I’ve known Bill a long time — he’s one of his company’s top executives. After showing me the list, I remarked, “Bill, I hope you won’t mind my saying this, but I don’t see anything too ambitious. May I have a copy?” Bill replied, “No, I can’t give you a copy.” “Confidential?” I asked. “No,” he said, “You’re right. There’s nothing ambitious about it at all. I can’t give you a copy because it’s an embarrassment—this is all my company could come up with.”

This exchange brought to my mind words of the renowned Mortimer Adler, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago: “Whoever passes by what is over his head condemns his head to its present low altitude.” This was Bill’s company’s problem. Or, rather, this was the problem with Bill’s fellow executives—none was willing to learn anything over his head. If they had had that willingness, then they would have created different list — an ambitious one.

These words of Professor Adler are from his famous 1947 essay Invitation to the Pain of Learning. There he confronted the notion that learning can be made to be fun. He countered that not only is learning not fun, it is painful. That’s because to learn we have to think, and according to Adler, thinking is downright painful: “Anyone who has done any thinking, even a little bit, knows that it is painful. It is hard work—in fact the very hardest that human beings are ever called upon to do. It is fatiguing, not refreshing. If allowed to follow the path of least resistance, no one would ever think.”

Few would argue with the proposition that to innovate means having to learn something new. But, this learning is not the sort that comes with short courses or executive education. Instead, it’s the learning that comes only by experiment, learning by building and doing, what MIT calls: “Mens et Manus” — Mind and Hand. We don’t have to look far: Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, Tycho Brahe, Charles Goodyear, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemmingway, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby, John Lennon, Steve Jobs, Robert see that innovation has come about only from learning by doing.

Professor Adler remarked that some think learning is something that can be added externally to a person, like buying a suit of clothes, where the buyer is cajoled into standing there willingly as he is fitted according to his own likes and dislikes and according to his own notions of what enhances his appearance.

But, Adler said real learning is nothing of the kind. For him, learning is the interior transformation of a person’s mind and character — and this requires unrelenting activity from the learner in the form of thinking. He continued: “Without thinking, the kind of learning which transforms a mind, gives it new insights, enlightens it, deepens understanding, elevates the spirit simply cannot occur.”

How many open innovation initiatives are really just caving-in to the path of least resistance — turning what should be an exercise in learning into an exercise in procurement? How many are really scavenger hunts, or shopping for a new “suit of clothes”, with wish lists of self-absorbed and self-serving incremental problems, or unsophisticated notions of breakthroughs — what the buyer thinks “looks good” — and not quests to learn and discover what is, as yet, unknown, but history shows always serves as the basis for new product and service platforms, and entirely new industries? How many open innovation websites are little more than “letters to Santa Claus”, posted in the hope that “magic elves”, this time living in the cloud instead of at the North Pole, will transform lists of transient wants into gifts of profit to be found waiting at the bottom of an income statement like presents at the bottom of a Christmas tree?

If a wireless device company had negotiated the plans, prototypes, and patents of the iPhone away from Apple, there is no doubt they could have manufactured and sold the very first ones. But, could they have gone on to invent the 2G, 3G, 4, and 5, to say nothing of the iPad? It is doubtful they could without first learning what Apple learned by developing the iPhone.

Professor Alder said: “’Education’ all wrapped up in attractive tissue is the gold brick that is being sold in America today on every street corner. Everyone is selling it, everyone is buying it, but no one is giving or getting the real thing because the real thing is always hard to give or get.” For executives of today, might we substitute “Innovation” for “Education”?

Taking the wisdom of Professor Adler’s Invitation to the Pain of Learning into the context of innovation: Unless we acknowledge that every invitation to innovate can promise profit only as the result of pain, can offer achievement only at the expense of work, all of our invitations to innovate, in labs or user groups, whether through ideation sessions or the Internet, will be as much bunkum as the worst late night television advertising, or a campaign pledge to increase benefits while cutting the deficit and taxes at the same time.

About the Author

Randall S. Wright is a Senior Liaison Officer with MIT's Industrial Liaison Program. He manages the interface between the managements of companies, headquartered in the United States and Europe, and the senior administration and faculty of MIT. Prior to becoming a Senior Liaison Officer for MIT, Randall was a Marketing Manager for Pfizer, Inc., and a Strategic Planning Analyst for Pennzoil Company. Randall is an invited lecturer at Northeastern University's Executive M.B.A. Program where he lectures on innovation and corporate strategy.

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