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 / Winter 2007 / Issue 49(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2007: Innovation

Innovation is hard, and sustained innovation even harder. That’s one essential reason that great confidence and competence need to be leavened by humility. How much humility? Without tongue in cheek, Berkun’s book calculates the probability of successful innovation:

As a back-of the-envelope sketch of innovation difficulty, let’s assume there’s a 50 percent [chance] of succeeding at each [previously discussed] challenge (which, given the data, is generous). Because success at one challenge is dependent on the previous, the probability of overcoming all challenges is low:

50% X 50% X 50% X 50% X 50% X 50% X 50% X 50% = .390625%

That’s less than 1 percent. Of course, if your innovation requires only convincing your friends to try a new poker variation or your boss to run meetings differently, you might face two (and not all eight) challenges and odds improve based on your skills, experience, and teammates. It’s safe to say that the smaller your ambition the better the odds. But dreams and passions, the saving throw against probability, might fade. And, as Han Solo said, “Never tell me the odds.”

That successful innovation seems so dependent on contingent probabilities seems both obvious and unfair. Yet, as Myths and Dreaming illustrate from radically different perspectives, very smart people consistently ignore the obvious and behave as if luck were on their side. As probability and history both affirm, they do so at their peril.

Playing the Game
Nevertheless, the innovation process, much like poker, is often as much a test of skill as of luck. The best poker players, like the best innovators, know how to manage risk, play the odds, and read the table. In Brilliant! Australian technology writer Bob Johnstone does a brilliant job of describing how well and how persistently an unsung Japanese scientist, Shuji Nakamura, played the innovation game in the electronics industry. You’ve likely never heard of Nakamura, but this engineer was able to solve technical problems that had stumped top electronics firms for more than two decades; he created, for example, the last piece of technology needed to manufacture solid-state white lights known as light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. In his own way, Nakamura’s discovery may prove as high-impact as those of high-tech entrepreneurs such as Intel’s Bob Noyce or Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Johnstone’s profile of Nakamura builds on his fantastic book, We Were Burning: Japanese Entrepreneurs and the Forging of the Electronic Age (Basic Books, 1999), a sociocultural industrial profile of Japan’s electronics entrepreneurs and enterprises. Shuji Nakamura was one of the last and most innovative scientist/inventor/innovators Johnstone described in that book, and Brilliant! starts where Burning ends. In Brilliant! Nakamura is almost a caricature of the ob­sessed creator. He is simultaneously a scientist, a craftsman, and a revolutionary. Think of him toiling away in obscurity but growing more frustrated with his inability to have his innovations compete in the global arena.

But Johnstone offers up more than the standard bio of a lone scientist who triumphs in spite of seemingly insuperable odds. What he has written is the economic sociology of an innovation network, with Nakamura at its hub. What Nakamura does with lighting surely rivals the Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley invention of the transistor in terms of potential. Just as Edison’s lightbulb redefined illumination in the last century, so Nakamura’s lasers and LEDs may do for this one, producing more light in more places at less cost and with less energy usage than the incandescent bulb. Edison would be envious.

What role does humility play for scientist/entrepreneurs who are intent on changing the world? In Nakamura’s case, he is a scientist so fluent in the materials he manipulates that his colleagues and students — both in his lab and in the worldwide “invisible college” of fellow innovators — are effusive in their expressions of respect for him, and single out his humil­ity. Johnstone, quoting one of Nakamura’s students, writes: “What he showed us was how to do quick tests on our devices…. We assumed initially that you had to slap on your contacts before you could get any feedback, and that’s usually at least a half day’s work. He showed us a way to get feedback in essen­tially five minutes after the growth. Things like that, you know the man’s been in the lab himself and tried out these things.”

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