David Ditzel had a prestigious research job at Sun Microsystems in 1995 but was spending too much time in meetings that didn't matter much to him. "I didn't like where things were heading, and I didn't believe in the vision, so I became demotivated," he is quoted as saying in a new book. "I had to force myself to go off and think of something new." He quit his job and founded Transmeta, which has a radical new approach to making semiconductors.
Mr. Ditzel is an example of a "hip, hot and happening" innovator, or "H3," portrayed in the book, "New Ideas About New Ideas: Insights on Creativity from the World's Leading Innovators," by Shira P. White, a New York-based consultant (Perseus Publishing, $26). The term H3 may make readers roll their eyes, as Ms. White acknowledges, but don't let the instant cliché deter you. Her book - which she wrote with G. Patton Wright, whom she describes as a writing coach and mentor - is filled with insight about the creative process and is presented most engagingly. It is precisely in these tough economic times, she contends, when innovation has a black eye because of the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the collapse of incubators like IdeaLab, that true innovators keep pushing ahead with a search for "leap innovation."
Much ink has been spilled on the topic of innovation, but Ms. White approaches the subject in a fresh way, partly because of her background and training. She had been a painter but decided to get a master's degree in business administration at New York University. Ms. White tells how she butted heads with one professor of management of information systems: The professor gave the class an assignment. Ms. White came up with a novel solution, but got a D. The reason, she remembers the professor saying, was that it wasn't the answer the professor was seeking. The business mind, it seemed to Ms. White, was closed to creative solutions.
Since getting her degree, Ms. White has led something of a dual life. She has served as an instructor at the Pratt Institute and a lecturer at New York University's Stern Graduate School of Business and the School of Visual Arts. She also started a consulting business, SPWI - the letters are her initials, plus "I" for innovation - which helps companies innovate.
For "New Ideas," Ms. White interviewed a mix of 100 artists and sculptors and architects as well as business leaders at America Online, Corning, EMC, Enron, Genzyme, I.B.M. Research, ImClone Systems, Microsoft, Palm, Progressive Insurance and others.
Obviously, at least one of these companies has been too creative. Ms. White met and quotes Enron's former chairman, Kenneth L. Lay, and former chief executive, Jeffrey K. Skilling, discussing their pursuit of creative people for their staff and their expansion into new lines of business. She was able to adjust many of her references to Enron because much of the news about the company's collapse happened just before the book went to press this month. The fact remains, however, that the company was in many ways an innovator, coming up with a new market for trading commodities and for hedging, among other things.
ImClone, another company that figures prominently in the book, has encountered problems in trying to have its new anti-cancer drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
And her praise of Corning, a leader in fiber optics, and IdeaLab, the technology venture capital firm, overlook some harsh realities: Corning lost $5.5 billion last year and idled many factories because of the global glut in fiber optic cable, and investors in IdeaLab have sued its founder, Bill Gross, accusing him of squandering their money.
But none of that detracts from the overall message that Ms. White offers. As was the case with Mr. Ditzel, the best innovators find it hard to work in an organization that is too wedded to the status quo. In traditional organizations, "people who have investments in the `old model' are not always happy to see new talent coming along with a bright and shiny new design," Ms. White writes.
"Typically, the need to change is in conflict with the need to stay the same," she adds.
SHE says the best way for top executives to encourage innovation is to spot the talent in the company, then give these people enormous room to run and expose them to other influences, whether art or different scientific disciplines.
The point is to create what she called a "spark soup" of data and thought-sharing from which new ideas emerge. "New things don't tend to come out of heavy organization," she writes.
Some executives, like Corning's former chairman, Roger G. Ackerman, even allow ideas they don't like to percolate. They also encourage innovators to play around with their mistakes. The company, she argues, has a "new-idea culture."
Elsewhere, she writes that true innovators do their best work when they have emotional connections to others in their research unit. Ms. White quotes Mr. Gross, of IdeaLab, as arguing that researchers should be organized as "tribes" doing battle against other tribes. That allows for "greater intimacy, better communications and more camaraderie," the author says.
Reflecting her artistic background, Ms. White writes that too many executives attempt to make decisions strictly by the numbers. The numbers, like returns on investment, often don't capture "mushy stuff" like the quality of a company's employees and the value of brands and customer bases, she says.
One surprise in the book is that Ms. White finds creativity in companies that aren't widely known for innovation: Progressive Insurance, Welch Foods and Capital One Financial, for example. Progressive, now the No. 4 insurer in the country, has turned auto insurance upside down by figuring out ways to offer lower rates in many cases and changing the way accident victims repair their cars. Rather than giving a customer an estimate to take to a repair shop, which encourages both the customer and repair shop to pad the bill, Progressive takes charge of the repairs and has them done at a lower cost.
HE company's chairman, Peter Lewis, told Ms. White that he got some of his best ideas when he swam - with a tape recorder poised at each end of the pool. "I've solved most of my problems at the end of the workday, in a somewhat altered state of consciousness," Mr. Lewis said.
Aside from the broad lessons on creativity, the book offers compelling personal accounts of how brilliant people create new things. The sensational design that Frank Gehry developed for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, started when Mr. Lewis of Progressive Insurance hired the architect in 1989 to design and build his dream house. "I started playing with movements, making shapes that are dynamic and have a quality of movement to them," Mr. Gehry said in the book. One thing led to another, and the design morphed into a museum.
Many creative people play with ideas and concepts that suddenly blossom, Ms. White concludes. Her innovators often pursue projects in unrelated spheres of life, all at the same time. Sometimes they need immersion in the spark soup; at other times, they need isolation to work all night on new inspirations.
"New Ideas" has an inspirational quality to it, but not in a crass "lose 10 pounds in five days" way. Even if the technology bubble has popped and Enron has crashed, American creativity isn't over. No one can put innovation in a bottle, but we can keep learning about how to do it better. Ms. White's book will encourage readers to do that.
Shira P. White contends that American companies need to be more creative, yet one company she wrote about, Enron, took creativity to a level that proved its downfall. In an interview, she spoke about striking the right creative balance.
Q. Did Enron's executives cross the line from creativity to something else?
A. The jury is still out about what they actually did. They may have done illegal things and they may have done immoral things, but they may also have had some good ideas. I think we should separate out the good ideas from the bad things and see if they have some application. There is a really big difference between creativity and illegality.
Q. Is true innovation still occurring despite all the bad things that have happened in the economy?
A. Yes, I believe so and really hope so. Now it's even more important for people and companies to be creative and to get creative about the tight spots they're in. The worse the economy, the more creative you have to be.
Q. Why aren't American companies more creative in what you consider the right kind of way?
A. For most companies, it hasn't been a priority. They don't screen employees on the basis of creativity. Their systems are not designed for creativity, but rather efficiency.
Q. Do you think executives manage too much by the numbers?
A. Yes, it is largely numbers-oriented. Even on a psychological level, people are resistant to creativity. People don't want to rock the boat or make waves. It's easier to do it the way it's always been done. It takes a lot of courage to do something new.
Q.You wrote that the average corporate brainstorming session doesn't really work. Why doesn't it?
A. Most of the time, it doesn't work because in most organizations, it's an isolated activity. They'll call a brainstorming session, bring in a facilitator, sit around for an afternoon and come up with all sorts of ideas. But the ideas aren't based on any preparation. Then, afterward, people go back to their offices and nothing ever happens. The ideas collect dust.
Q. What's wrong with the innovation process at most companies, then?
A. Most companies don't even have one. If you walk into 90 percent of organizations and ask, "Do you have an innovation process?" the answer would be no. You'd get puzzled looks.
Q. Now that the technology bubble has popped, some people think that America's most innovative days are gone. Do you?
A. I don't think our creative juices are shot. Do we have more creative days ahead of us? I think so. There is certainly higher awareness for the need for higher creativity and innovation than ever before.