Are You Smarter than a PhD?

July 7, 2010  

“Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?” is an entertaining show.

In the world of innovation, the biggest question is, “Are you smarter than a PhD?”

Here’s what I mean…

In Personality Poker we address four primary innovation styles.  The spades are the ones who are, as we would say in Boston, “wicked smaht.”

We find that spades are analytical, fact-driven, and often quite intelligent.

One of the challenges with driving innovation into organizations is that smart people are often more interested in being right than doing right.  That is, experts want to believe that they can solve every problem under the sun.  Although this isn’t true, this pervasive belief can circumvent your innovation efforts.

Here’s a simple example…

A few years back, an InnoCentive client identified a very complex challenge they wanted solved.  They posted this challenge to the InnoCentive.com website.  Anyone who could solve this problem would get a cash prize.  Dozens of solutions were submitted.

One of the solutions was submitted by an employee of the client.  Let’s call her Sally.

Sally went to the individual who sponsored the challenge and said, “Why did you go outside to find a solution?  I already had the answer.”  She was clearly upset that her company went externally to find a solution.

Interestingly, Sally’s actions were the catalyst which helped this client build the case for open innovation.

When the evaluation team evaluated all of the solutions submitted, Sally’s was not viewed as innovative.  It was the same type of solution the company had been considering for years.  The breakthrough idea came from someone outside of their company and even outside of their industry.

The company now had proof positive of the value of open innovation.

To be clear, the objective of open innovation is not to replace the smarts you already have in your organization.  It is to augment this brilliance.  Most companies don’t have enough time to solve all of the challenges they are working on.  Unfortunately, R&D people often get spread thin working on a lot of different types of challenges, some of which could be better solved by others outside the company.

Here’s a simple model I use to help companies determine which challenges should be solved externally, versus those that can be solved internally. Challenge fall into roughly three broad categories:

Simple: These are challenges that someone else has probably solved.  Although you could solve them internally, this is not the best use of your resources.  The odds are that someone else already has a solution that you could buy or license for less money in less time.  Why waste your highly specialized experts on these types of challenges?

Unsolved: There are some challenges that are exceptionally complex that may have remained unsolved within your organization for years.  Or maybe it is something that is viewed as outside your area of expertise.  A well-worn, but useful example of this is the oil spill recovery in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez accident. For 20 years, oil/gas experts futilely tried to find a way to pump out the almost solidified oil at the bottom of Prince William Sound.  Eventually, through a challenge posted on InnoCentive, they found a solution from the cement industry, not the oil/gas industry.  John Davis, a chemist with expertise in cement, figured that if vibrating cement can keep it from hardening, then a similar concept can be adapted to keep the oil in the tanks from freezing.  It worked and solved a two decade old problem. These challenge are also best solved externally because you can increase the level of diversity in your solver base.

Differentiator: These challenges fall into the sweet-spot of your organization.  These are the challenges that your experts are best equipped to solve.  By “outsourcing” the simple and unsolved challenges, you can allow your team to focus on what they do best.  This will increase your ability to solve the problems that differentiate you from your competition.  For these types of challenges, it is often useful to post challenges internally, using a tool like InnoCentive’s @Work solution.  This allows you to tap into the collective intelligence of every employee, regardless of where they reside organizationally or geographically.

Smart people want to be (and should be) appreciated for their brilliance.  They have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge. But as the late, great Will Rogers said, “There is nothing so stupid as an educated man, if you get off the thing that he was educated in.

Everyone can not be educated in everything.  Therefore, figure out what you (and your organization) do best, and find others to help with everything else.

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One Response to “Are You Smarter than a PhD?”

  1. Fred E. Miller on August 1st, 2010 12:01 pm

    Good Post!

    Too many times WE think we have all the answers. WE don’t.

    Often, someone with no pre-conceived ideas or knowledge of the problem will come up the best solution(s).

    A smart peson knows what they don’t know. They have to have enough ‘confidence on their own competence’ to go outside and ask for help.

    I strive to get smarter every day!

    Thanks!