Teamwork, collaboration, creative tension, innovation and the future

CW Editor Jeff Sloan shares insights into innovation and collaboration from a selection from his own summer reading list, The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.

It’s summer and we all, theoretically, have more time for leisure reading. So, if you are headed to the beach, the back yard or out on a road trip, I have a book for you: The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Written by Walter Isaacson, it’s a historical review of the teams of people who shaped the digital age. Isaacson’s story starts in the 1840s with Ada Lovelace, an English countess, mathematician and, by many accounts, the first world’s first computer programmer. From there, Isaacson moves into the 20th and then 21st Centuries, introducing us to a cast of digital revolutionaries, including Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Paul Allen, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee and Larry Page.

Isaacson’s theme is that innovation is borne out of collaborative, cooperative teamwork. He evaluates a series of digital milestones (development of the transistor, graphics-based operating systems, computer networking, etc.) and then explores the people who helped us reach those milestones. What he discovers is that the most innovative ideas and technologies were the product of creative tension among two or more people, each of whom had a skill set that complemented the skill sets of others on the team. Such complementary groups developed a dynamic feedback loop that propelled an idea forward in a way that could not have been possible had any single team member been working alone.

Reading this book, it’s not difficult to imagine what lessons it has for the composites industry, and beyond. Indeed, team-centered innovation is the reason companies and governments create laboratories, technical centers and R&D facilities — throw creative, smart people together, give them tools and materials, and see what results. 

The composites industry has benefited for decades from such strategies, developing materials and technologies that speed cure, boost product quality, and offer new ways of fabricating composite parts and structures,propelling composites into end-markets and applications that, 10-20 years ago, were unimaginable. 

As we look ahead, I wonder: Where will today’s innovators take us? What stands in their way? One of the hurdles Isaacson describes is inter-team collaboration (or the lack of it). Early on, an ethos developed in the computer world that said, basically, “hardware is proprietary, software is public.” This made it difficult for hardware developers to share knowledge with other teams. Conversely, an open-source philosophy in the software community drove creativity from team to team, thus accelerating innovation, at least, initially. But most programmers eventually got to a point where the value of their work exceeded the value derived from open collaboration.

Similarly, In the world of composites, “intellectual property,” “proprietary,” and “non-disclosure agreement (NDA)” are some of the first words mentioned when you get two engineers from two different companies together. Protection of the “secret sauce” is paramount, particularly if that secret sauce is tied to a major program or customer. But, if everyone has technology to protect, how do we move technology forward into the future? 

IACMI here in the US, and organizations like it in Europe, are working to build multi-company project teams to develop technologies that can eventually be commercialized. But this inter-team effort requires some degree of surrender of intellectual property control, which many firms are just unwilling to do.

One force that drives composites creativity is the influence of outsiders. The dynamic, rapidly expanding nature of composites use attracts thinkers and doers from ancillary industries, where composites are known, but not well understood. Such folks tend to look at composites and their application with fresh eyes, from a perspective that shapes new composites paradigms. This is happening perhaps most vividly in the architecture community, where architects are putting composites to work more creatively than ever.

While we wait to see where it all leads, I’ll move on to my next book. Enjoy the summer, and let me know what you’re reading.