Copying Einstein: Innovation is within our reach

Dreams onlyIn 1904 Albert Einstein was working at the Patent office in Bern, Switzerland because he could not find a position at a University.  He took the job for one really important reason, because he needed it to feed his young family.

Because of his background, his director gave him the job of evaluating electro-magnetic transmissions. New electronic systems were needed to help synchronize long distance rail lines that were spreading out across the globe. Everyone knew the earth was divided into time zones, but the speed of railroads greatly elevated the importance of local time vs. universal time.

Can you imagine this? Even Einstein, one of the greatest intellects of all times, felt trapped by a dead-end job. He would fit in with today’s US work-force who, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, feel overwhelmingly the same way.   So many of us feel we are not in the right job where we can use our talents and skills to really make a difference. Many of us have ideas and dreams we would like to pursue but either feel we need to be in a different role to do so, or are too overworked to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, a 2013 Accenture survey showed that 93% of all CEO’s said innovation was vital to future existence and they worry where it will come from.

Despite having business leaders desperate to see more innovation and our personal desire to do something new, to build that new process, new business or invention, we don’t find time to innovate. And so we sit, sometimes for years, waiting for the right thing to happen to us, the right chance to spread our wings with our new ideas.

What we fail to recognize as business owners is that innovation is within our reach. And as individuals we lose sight of the fact that we don’t need to quit our jobs to do something fantastic with our careers.

Einstein found a way to stay innovative in his dead-end job. In fact, it was from his position at the patent office, not a university hall, that he first conceived of and penned his famous theory of relativity!

By looking at Einstein’s time at the patent office we can see 3 distinct ways in which he kept his innovative spirit alive in less than ideal circumstances.

1. Approach Each Day Differently

Einstein most likely approached each day’s problems differently. No doubt he put took a philosophical approach to considering local time vs. universal time for controlling train traffic. The prolific notes he took while on the job bear out the fact that his theories came from thinking about problems from different angles. For me, a chance to emulate this came when I first moved to Atlanta. We needed to create new relationships with a customer and were struggling to do so. I decided to stop sending emails and leaving phone messages and rather try to meet new contacts on social channels.  This method worked and propelled us forward many more steps than we ever could have imagined.  Whatever the work is that needs to be done, we can breed innovation by approaching the mundane in new ways, interesting ways, creative ways.

2. Redefine Your Job

The second strategy is re-defining the jobs we have today so that they might morph into job we one day want to have. An old boss of mine once told me that the best way of getting your dream job is to just begin doing it. Einstein wanted to be a theoretical physicist and he began to do that each day at the patent office. He worked extra hours to put his ideas that were inspired by his daily grind onto paper and to think about his theories. Life-balance is a huge problem in America. I am certainly a fan of late nights, but I believe that companies can do more to encourage the innovation they want by allowing employees time to experiment and change their current job titles. Many research and development organizations allow employees significant chunks of time to work on projects that they are interested in and that may have little or no commercial value to the company. Innovation can often be found where our hearts leads us and that may not lie inside the strict job definitions we have today.

3 Follow Your Dreams (no matter what!)

Finally, we must never let go of our dreams. Einstein didn’t. This one is very personal to me because I almost gave up about 2 years ago. I was a sales manager in Minnesota and despite the ideas I had, and the things I wanted to do, I was convinced by my sales vice-president that I needed to put all my effort toward improving at my current job. He gave me vivid suggestions of how he my job should be done that varied grealy from how I had been doing it. Once I mastered my current job, he said, I would be given a chance at a promotion where I could pursue my dreams. I walked out of his office and took his advice. This was one of the worst mistakes I have ever made.   Because once my creativity was squelched, I became nothing.  I was going through the motions and this was a disservice to myself and my firm. My team’s results sunk like a rock and I was asked to leave.  The silver lining to this is that once I got a new job I was determined to never, ever stop doing that job in a way that I thought it should be done.

The choice is really ours. Einstein has left us an incredible legacy not just in his opus in physics, but also in how he lived his life. If we are really interested in innovation, we don’t need to build think-tanks or quit our jobs to define, experiment with and live out our dreams. We simply need the right mental attitude. It is certainly within our reach.


Kids go to college to get more knowledge…

Corporate America has a problem.  We need more innovation. Thought-leadership is needed to put our businesses in proper position to compete globally. There is a certain fear that possibly we have squelched innovation during the go-go years or by piling too much work on the plate of each manager during these more recent years of scarcity.

Whatever the reason, there is a huge demand to get the innovation tap flowing again and companies are spending money to do so.

Besides relying more on paid consulting enagements from third parties to get new ideas, businesses are seeing the value of using their employees to drive innovation. Who knows the business and landscape better than they do? My company has invested heavily in a ‘crowd source’ platform. On this site employees can develop and collaborate on new ideas. Those ideas are vetted and improved upon by other employees. Ideas that graduate are open to investment with gamified money and later real money by the business unit that could most benefit by the innovation.

This is a great way to drive innovation, but wait a minute! What caused the hibernation of innovation to begin with? It is not as if employees in mid-career are learnig to be innovative. Where did they lose the spark? Was it created by the corporate environment or does the problem begin before that?

I was pondering this as I drove up and down the hills in Ithaca, NY last week. This college town is renowned for creativity of all types including being home to the late Carl Sagan and countless new ideas.  So, it couldn’t be that innovation is being quashed at school. Could it?

There is a lot of change happening in post-secondary education and many sacred cows are being re-examined. Some have begun to ask the question if the very basis of dividing education into disciplines that specialize in narrowly focused fields. Might this be limiting the imagination and capacity for complex adaptation, and therefore needed change, at a macro level?

I would like to see a greater collaboration and discussion between corporations thirsting after innovation and colleges to figure out how to better equip young adults to adapt and lead.  Any corporation willing to partner with a university may not get all the top talent, but imagine how it may improve their chances of snagging ready-made innovators and promote themselves as an innovative company in the market.