Be Prepared to Innovate: MIT Prof Discusses Successful Innovation


“Each year more and more businesses are embracing OI. By putting OI and knowledge transfer together, companies will be able to embrace innovation. Not only OI will be part of their culture but they will also be able to build and maintain collaborative innovation for their future innovation management.”

Be Prepared to Innovate: MIT Prof Discusses Successful Innovation

In 2015, Open Innovation Ohio spoke with Dr. Sanjay Sarma, MIT’s Director of Digital Learning and the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

Professor Sarma has been at MIT since 1996, and has won numerous awards: from industry, for innovation and research, and for teaching, such as the RFID Journal Special Achievement Award, the National Science Foundation Career Award, and MIT Global Industry Technovator award.

Professor Sarma advises many companies, including CFORTA, which offers curated innovation for “wealth-holders who care about a disease but are frustrated by the pace of research.”

Professor Sarma has been teaching  3-day Radical Innovation course at MIT’s Professional Education short courses in early June 2015 & 2016. He shared with Open Innovation Ohio a preview of how he thinks about corporate innovation.

This article excerpts our conversation of 13 February 2015, spanning some of his thoughts on being prepared to innovate, useful innovation metrics, advice to corporate innovation groups, and traits of innovation leaders.

yet2: Professor Sarma, your Radical Innovation class syllabus touches on how to do innovation well in companies. How much of your material relates to Open Innovation?

Sarma: While the course touches only a little bit on Open Innovation specifically, philosophically, there are many ways to bring outside thinking into a company.

yet2: How does Open Innovation fit into a typical enterprise innovation group?

Sarma: Innovation groups in companies are needed, but in­novation is a state of mind. It is an infectious disease that should infect the whole company — so it is a deep-rooted thing. Anyone in a company, including the janitor, should be able to suggest innovations.

yet2: What are some of the signals, or indicators, you see of healthy corporate innovation cultures?

Sarma: When a company has an action-oriented mindset, when it creates time for bouncing ideas around, that’s a good sign. In startups, it happens naturally.

Larger companies can be­come siloed innovation is not everyone’s job. Steve Jobs said, “Why would you join a navy when you can be a pirate?” Pirates are rambunctious, individualistic, unpredictable… but if you can line them up, you can take out the bigger ships.

yet2: So what do you advise your students from bigger companies?

Sarma: If you are mid-level, you can’t do much about the organization. What an individual can do is to practice creativity and teach herself how to predict the future and get in the habit of doing it instinctively. But that takes practice and homework.

You need to know your industry, your company, and your products. You have to be obsessed about news about your industry and keep trying to guess what’s next. Over time you can tune your antennae into a sixth sense. Trust me, you really can.

yet2: How can you teach students to see into the future and to react creatively?

Sarma: First, prepare — by informing yourself with all means possible. Then, give yourself license to predict what will happen. Third, create — have ideas, incubate, and il­luminate them.

yet2: Have you seen companies use Open Innovation well?

Sarma: There are many ways to do open innovation, which is different from outside innovation. There are many ways to bring outside thinking into a company through outside consultants, experts, partnerships with startups, innova­tion challenges (contests), tools like GE’s Quirky.com; freelancers a whole range of possibilities.

But if you are not good at Open Innovative thinking internally, you won’t be able to make it work with external tools, either.

yet2: How can companies make the best use of a technology scout?

Sarma: It is not a matter of simply finding a vendor. You must be prepared to innovate. Be innovative first — then you will be receptive to outside ideas.

yet2: How can a corporate innovation group be most effec­tive?

Sarma: A specific Innovation Group can literally take voice away from the rest of the company — from all those who don’t have “innovation” as part of their job description.

But if the Innovation group is involved with engaging, with facilitating activities throughout the company, then it can be a much better force for good.

yet2: What kind of metrics do you find most useful for corpo­rate innovation?

Sarma: There are two types of metrics short term and long term. For example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) measures the number of flu shots given in a certain yearthat’s a short term metric. Their longer-term metric is measuring whether the incidence of flu goes down.

There is a lot of evidence that vaccines are tied to flu resistance, so those two metrics are linked. In the case of management, there are a lot of short-term metrics out there that are NOT tied to long term metrics.

In a company, the long term metric that makes the most sense is how much money do we make? Usually it takes a few years to get from a short-term change to the longer term impact and yes, sometimes there will be failure in between.

Examples of good short-term metrics could include: how many ideas did we come up with? How many patents did we file? How many people gave ideas? This last one is an example of using social engagement as a metric e.g. how many people do we service?

yet2: Finally, what do you see as key traits for innovation leaders?

Sarma: Well, it’s really a matter of if I see them and talk to them over time, I can tell you if they will be a good leader. They have to 1) have done it before, 2) radiate openness, and 3) be action-oriented, but at the same timed hard-nosed about turning ideas into money.

They need to be well-rounded, but also someone who has taken a deep-dive, who has taken something from idea stage to money. So they have to be a jack of all trades and master of some.

Elon Musk is a great example. Musk is known for being associated with three com­panies – Tesla, SpaceX, and Paypal. But did you know that the largest solar company in the world, Solar City, was also his idea?

yet2: Thank you very much, Professor Sarma, for sharing your time and insights with us today. Par­ticularly relevant for our customers is the concept that having an Open Innovation mindset internally enable successful external partnerships.