Working in Silicon Valley for nearly two decades, I’m frequently exposed to the concept of innovation. Sometimes even overexposed to the point of hype. But what I’ve learned over the years is that innovation isn’t limited to technology companies, driven by a secret algorithm or framework yielding the next game changing software or hardware product. Rather, innovation is all around us, perhaps equally generated by accident, or by trial and error, as it is from an organized innovation initiative. It’s evident in all aspects of my daily life, from cooking, to music, to travel, and theater as well as technology and is globally true. What I’ve observed though is that the universal factors in the entrepreneurial attitude that creates such innovation are curiosity and perseverance. Curiosity to investigate multiple options and approaches and the perseverance to keep going when those initial options keep failing and conventional wisdom all around you is saying it won’t work.
As I reflect in my own diverse and seemingly unrelated interests just in the last two months, such innovative spirit is very evident. Two examples in particular reinforced this to me.
- Wright Brothers: I recently finished the excellent biography of the Wright Brothers by David McCullough. The Wright Brothers, from my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, famously are the fathers of flight; credited with the first successful flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. Neither Wilbur or Orville Wright were scientifically trained. As experienced bicycle makers and printing press handlers, they leveraged their knowledge of machinery and motors and let their curiosity roam to apply this knowledge to air travel. Fascinated with how birds could fly, they studied the wing and force dynamics of bird flight closely. They even built a homemade wind tunnel to capture data points to support more efficient wing construction. They were competing against more heavily funded efforts led by leading scientists at the time; from Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Museum and even the noted inventor of the telephone Alexander Bell Graham in the race for flight. They were truly the underdog in this race. With odds against them, they persevered even after a major crash that killed colleague Thomas Selfridge and led to extensive injuries to Orville. Ultimately, their focus on pilot control rather than building powerful engines was their differentiated path to success. Amidst major skepticism from the US scientific community and the US military, the Wright Brothers were forced to build initial commercial partnerships and support outside of the US in France to legitimize their technology. They used their natural curiosity and perseverance to get to one of the most important technological inventions in history.
- Grandmaster Flash- I recently watched the fantastic Netflix Originals documentary Hip Hop Evolution. Going back to the origins of Rap in the Bronx, New York, they chronicled Hip Hop’s history from Kool Herc’s parties progressing through the contributions from DJ Hollywood, Mellie Mel, The Furious Five, The Sugarhill Gang, Run DMC, Big Daddy Kane, Ice T, NWA and others. But what stood out to me throughout this history is the innovation and pure wizardry of Grandmaster Flash. The DJ’s convention at the time was to focus only on the tone arm of the record player; never to touch the vinyl of the record. DJ’s believed records would get ruined if touched. However, using the tone arm led to sloppy transitions when mixing songs but this was reluctantly accepted by the industry. Flash challenged this, he touched the vinyl through a rigorous experimentation process; this lead to finding the exact break of the beat leading to seamless transitions when spinning. Fab 5 Freddy describes Flash’s experimentation as a rigorous R&D process, using what Silicon Valley engineers would call continuous A-B testing. Grandmaster Flash was truly a scientist; in fact, if he was in Silicon Valley in the 80’s rather than the Bronx; I’m sure he would have been a major contributor in building revolutionary computers and hardware. Such an incredible talent driven by innate curiosity. From an early age, he was fascinated by spinning things; looking at spinning dryers and bicycle wheels which evolved into optimizing spinning records. His pure perseverance led him to build his own sound system out of spare and discarded parts in the Bronx. Curiosity, drive and perseverance led Grandmaster Flash to be perhaps the most important pioneer of Hip Hop.
More examples of such innovation surround recent entertainment choices. I recently saw Hamilton, of course, the now legendary Broadway musical. To tell the story of the American revolution through modern day Rap and Hip Hop music and language is as contrary to convention as you can imagine. The amount of times Lin-Manuel Miranda would have heard people scoff at such a concept has to be impossible to count. Another Netflix Original series called the Chef’s Table highlights in each episode how world class chefs have created the world’s most brilliant restaurants. One episode described how Indian chef Gaggan Anand built one of Asia’s best restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand. Through deep iterative experimentation, he has taken Indian cooking to its core roots and turned that into a fine dining experience. True entrepreneurship and innovation in cooking and theatre; as innovative as the next social media product or smart phone device.
In my opinion, the best television series of my lifetime is The West Wing with unparalleled, innovative writing by Aaron Sorkin. In Season 2 Episode 9 (titled Galileo), for political reasons, President Bartlett begrudgingly has to attend a performance of the Reykjavik Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. A classical music connoisseur, President Bartlett is certain that the recently completed modern score penned by the Icelandic composer can’t stand up to the classics he knows so well. Bartlett though thoroughly enjoys the concert, and is blown away by the quality of the modern piece. He begins to reflect on the journey of the little-known composer and how he himself could be so wrong. He states:
“I really didn’t think I could be surprised by music anymore. I thought about all the times this guy must’ve heard that his music was no good.”
Perseverance leads the innovator to continue their quest to change the minds of even the most brilliant of skeptics such as President Bartlett and their innate curiosity led them to even have the ingredients to build a solution to take to the world. The essence of innovation and the entrepreneurs who create it.