I recently learned about M-Pesa, a mobile-based money transfer service used in various countries in Africa. M-Pesa has changed the dimension of the banking industry in those countries. When asked about existing banking regulations and how they might affect this venture, the founder of the company said that we live in a “disruptive” world and gave examples of how Uber and Airbnb are changing the dimensions of those industries.
We are indeed going through an interesting period—powered by science and technology, we are redefining many things that apparently have been known forever. We know that in order to survive in this environment, we have to be innovative—but is there a recipe for promoting innovation?
We know a lot of tech companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft started from humble garage operations. A friend of mine once jokingly told me that he couldn’t innovate anything because he didn’t have a garage. Funny, I thought, but part of me wondered if that proverbial “garage” truly existed. And if so, how could it be harnessed to drive innovation?
If we read the stories of innovators and their discoveries, the common thread can be expressed in a single sentence spoken by Edison years ago: “There’s a way to do it better—find it.” Every innovator has believed in that fundamental idea—they were not happy with the answer they had and were sincerely trying to find a better way of doing, knowing, and explaining something that bothered them. Sometimes they found their coveted answer, but sometimes they found answers to other questions—both helped advance our understanding of the way things really work.
As a cosmology enthusiast and fan of the TV show Big Bang Theory, one such scientific discovery that especially impresses me is the discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation.
In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were attempting to listen to the microwave signals transmitted from our solar system using a large radio antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey. They were constantly receiving an undefined radio noise which was far less energetic than the radiation given off by the Milky Way or any other nearby galaxy. They initially thought the faulty results were caused by pigeon or bat droppings on the antennas. When the results didn’t change even after they cleaned up the antennas and eliminated the possibilities of other interferences from local urban areas, they were perplexed. At that time, they had no idea that they had found something that would indeed earn them a Nobel prize in Physics in 1978. The following excerpt is from the official website of Nobel Prize:
“The answer was provided by Robert Dicke at Princeton University. Searching for evidence to support the theory that the universe was created from a single, highly explosive moment, known as the Big Bang, Dicke and his colleagues were investigating a prediction first made in the 1940s that such a spectacular event should leave a faint, cold afterglow that could be detected. The noise that Penzias and Wilson were trying to remove, which became known as cosmic microwave background radiation, was the missing evidence that could back up the Big Bang theory, and this led to its acceptance as the standard model of cosmology.
The cosmic microwave background radiation is thought to have been formed shortly after the explosive event of the Big Bang, as the hot and rapidly expanding universe began to cool down. Through their discovery of this radiation, Penzias and Wilson have provided scientists with the best means available for exploring the first snapshots of the new-born universe.”
At Synergy, we are always brainstorming new ways to foster an environment that is ripe for innovation. Though experience is invaluable, we need to be careful to see that experience doesn’t become a deterrent to creativity. We have created processes and best practices, but they are all open to improvement. It is worth noting that not every innovation must be individually “big”—collectively, many small innovations can make us significantly better.
I still remember a particularly challenging project where a newly hired developer proposed a solution that contradicted the proposal of a very experienced developer. His conviction and analysis encouraged us to support the new plan. The results were spectacular—we were not only successful in that project, but the customer also awarded us many more critical projects.