Now for something completely different: Bill Gates

July 14, 2008

There’s good reason to be optimistic about the departure of Bill Gates from his role atop Microsoft, and it’s not a mean-spirited one.

By focusing his attention on his charitable foundation, taking aiming at malaria, AIDS and poverty, he is putting himself in a position where he could once again achieve a dramatic breakthrough, as he once did in the computer world.

Gates is a conceptual innovator, a type of inventor who usually achieves the most at an early age. Gates, for example, founded the company that became Microsoft at age 19.

When conceptual innovators get older, they tend to get stale. But not if they switch to a new field of inquiry. When they start afresh in a new area, they can achieve new successes — much more so than if they stayed put. As the Arts of Innovation Web site states:

When you reach middle age, don’t worry if you find yourself in a mid-life crisis, because a mid-life shift could bring with it the potential for new breakthroughs in a new field. For mid-life role models, consider Benjamin Franklin, Walt Disney and David Hockney.

Similarly, conceptual innovator Samuel Morse abandoned a career in art in mid-life and soon invented the telegraph.

“To choose such formidable foes [as malaria and poverty] in the middle of your life takes bags of self-belief, but it is also pragmatic,” as The Economist notes.

That magazine’s recent article on “The Meaning of Bill Gates” describes a conceptual innovator who knows it’s time to move on:

“His genius was to understand what he needed and work out how to obtain it.”


“As with many great innovations, Mr Gates’s vision has come to seem so obvious that it is hard to imagine the world any other way. Yet, early on, he grasped … hings that were far from obvious at the time, and he grasped them more clearly and pursued them more fiercely than his rivals did.”

Now, perhaps like Disney, Morse, Franklin and Hockney, he can make new conceptual breakthroughs in his newly chosen field.

Watson’s great-granddaughter on the truth of Bell’s invention

June 6, 2008

Don’t believe the dramatic story that “that the telephone was born when Alexander Graham Bell spilled battery acid on himself and called out to Thomas Watson for help,” says Susan Cheever, Watson’s great-granddaughter. Writing to The New Yorker, she says:

March 10, 1876, the day Watson heard Bell through the wire, was a day completely without drama. There is no mention of the battery-acid accident in Bell’s log of the day. “The first recorded message was commonplace,” Watson complained in letters. “There was little of dramatic interest in the occasion.” It wasn’t until fifty years later, in 1926, when Watson sat down to write his lovely memoir, “Exploring Life,” that the battery-acid story was born. …

I come from a family of inspired storytellers, and Watson, who was my great-grandfather, was one of the best.

Gladwell: ‘Who says big ideas are rare?’

June 6, 2008

CartoonGood reading: Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker on “In the Air: Who says big ideas are rare?”


In order to get one of the greatest inventions of the modern age, in other words, we thought we needed the solitary genius. But if Alexander Graham Bell had fallen into the Grand River and drowned that day back in Brantford, the world would still have had the telephone, the only difference being that the telephone company would have been nicknamed Ma Gray, not Ma Bell.

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common.

Evolutionary design crossbreeds two innovation styles

January 26, 2008

Here’s an intriguing mix of conceptual and experimental innovation: evolutionary design.

The concept is to use a computerized trial-and-error method that mimicks the evolutionary process and eventually produces successful innovations. Because computers are so much faster than in the past, this method has now been used for designing cars, aircraft, USB memory sticks, yachts, optical fibers, ear implants, a cancer-detecting device, and a Wi-Fi antenna.

An article in The Economist (online in October, in print in December 2007) describes the process:

Evolutionary design uses a computer program called an evolutionary algorithm, which takes the initial parameters of the design (things such as lengths, areas, volumes, currents and voltages) and treats each like one gene in an organism. Collectively, these genes comprise the product’s genome. By randomly mutating these genes and then breeding them with other, similarly mutated genomes, new offspring designs are created. These are subjected to simulated use by a second program. If a particular offspring is shown not to be up to the task, it is discarded. If it is promising, it is selectively bred with other fit offspring to see if the results, when subject to further mutation, can do even better.

Aging innovators know it: Amazing ideas aren’t the only way to go

January 21, 2008

Elizabeth HazenThe ability to come up with brilliant new ideas tends to decline with age, but that’s no problem for people whose innovations aren’t dependent on brilliant ideas.

They’re innovators who are experimental, rather than conceptual. For them, aging isn’t such a handicap, since they typically improve with experience. But they do face a particular problem of their own:

People tend to forget that they exist.

Despite the examples of middle-aged and older experimental innovators from Henry Ford to Sam Walton, experimental innovators are often overlooked when thinkers theorize about innovation.

A recent example this pervasive forgetfulness is Janet Rae-Dupress’s piece “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike” that the New York Times published Dec. 30.

Read the rest of this entry »

Reverse-directory creator Jack Cole had his breakthrough at age 27

August 8, 2007

Conceptual innovator Jack Cole, who died last month, made his crucial breakthrough in 1947, at age 27.

Today’s obituary in the New York Times describes his youthful achievement, which led to the creation of a series of reverse directories for major U.S. cities:

“The first city directories in the United States were published in the 1780s. Though most were arranged alphabetically by last name, a few early ones were organized by street address. For the next century and a half, compilers of these directories trudged door to door, painstakingly recording the residents of every apartment in every building on every block in the city.
“What Mr. Cole did, starting in 1947, was to use I.B.M. punch cards to streamline the process, turning an ordinary telephone book into what today would be called a searchable database.”

Scott Berkun on innovation — I’d give his comments a B

July 17, 2007

Scott BerkunFormer Microsoft innovator Scott Berkun, author of “The Myths of Innovation,” has some noteworthy observations about young geniuses and older experimenters in a recent interview in the “How to Change the World” blog from former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki.

His observations are interesting, but would be more useful if they incorporated insights that David Galenson brings to the discussion.

On experimentation: Berkun sees experimentation as a supplement to the conceptual approach, which often be, of course. He doesn’t describe it as an approach that can stand on its own: “The best bet is to be an experimenter, a tinkerer—to learn to try out ideas cheaply and quickly and to get out there with people instead of fantasizing in ivory towers. Experience with real people trumps expert analysis much of the time.”

On age: Berkun believes that innovation declines with age, which tends to be true for conceptual innovators but not for experimental innovators. His explanation is that older people tend to shy away from the risks that innovation entails.

“Innovation is difficult, risky work, and the older you are, the greater the odds you’ll realize this is the case. That explanation works best. Beethoven didn’t write his ninth symphony until late in his life, so we know many creatives stay creative no matter how old they are. But their willingness to endure all the stresses and challenges of bringing an idea to the world diminishes. They understand the costs better from the life experience. The young don’t know what their is to fear, have stronger urges to prove themselves, and have fewer commitments—for example, children and mortgages. These factors that make it easier to try crazy things.”

Readers’ comments on the interview are also interesting. They touch on the works of James  Burke and Clayton Christensen on innovation and Frank Lloyd Wright as aging innovator.