Breaking Boundaries

Jim Euchner, From the Editor, Vol 61.6

“Differences of opinion should be tolerated. But not when they are too different. For then he becomes a subversive mother.”

—Miss America inWoody Allen’s Bananas


Early in my career, as part of a corporate culture exercise, I was introduced to the nine-dot problem. By now almost anyone connected with R&D or innovation has seen it. The challenge is to connect nine dots organized as a grid, using only four lines, without lifting your pencil. The group that I was part of for this exercise was an artificial intelligence lab, and the members seemed to be more driven to challenge the boundaries of the puzzle than to solve it. Most people solved the four-line version rather quickly. Then someone declared that he could do it with three lines (taking advantage of the large dimensions of the dots on the puzzle to skew lines through their edges); someone else claimed he could solve the puzzle with one line and did so by making a cylinder of the playing board and using a slightly askew line circling many times around the cylinder to hit all the dots; finally, someone said he could solve it with zero lines (one point) and folded the paper so that all the dots aligned, one above the other. He stabbed the stack of dots. Done!

The facilitator, at first, was not amused. He seemed to think he had lost control of the session and tried to reassert himself. Even though the point of the module was to teach thinking outside the box, he stammered something about our not following the rules. The natural resistance of the crowd erupted, and we took a break.

The world has been breaking boundaries at an increasing clip since then, and the 2018 Innovation Research Interchange meeting had “breaking boundaries” as its theme. The articles in this issue are drawn from that meeting, and they are truly mind expanding. Two kinds of boundary breaking are included in this issue. The first is the breaking of boundaries within our own minds: believing in something that others think is impossible, and then making it happen. This kind of boundary breaking is often scientific in nature and involves overcoming beliefs about what is technically possible. The articles by Yann Le Cun and Tan Le, both adaptations of IRI award talks, fit in this category.

The second kind of boundary we face is not in our minds but in the collective minds of organizations. Just as we as individuals place limits on what is possible, so too do companies, technical communities, and other established enterprises. Once the technical boundaries are broken, the organizational ones must be addressed if the breakthroughs are to have any impact. This is hard because organizations, like people, have defensive routines that block change. The remaining articles in this issue discuss different aspects of this kind of challenge.

The first category of boundary breaking is exemplified in Tan Le’s IRI Achievement Award talk, “The NeuroGeneration.” In the article based on her talk, Le discusses personal electroencephalography (EEG), a technology that permits the reading of brain activity using a lightweight, wireless, low-cost device. As she states, “These advances allow us to take high-end neuroscientific research out of the walled garden of the laboratory and into the real world.” Le discusses the case of a paraplegic woman who becomes able to communicate and to manipulate her world using only brain waves. She also discusses the ability to control robot arms in factories using this kind of interface. Not long ago, a scenario like this would have been considered fantasy. Tan Le and her team are breaking new ground.

Yann Le Cun, in his IRI Medalist presentation, discusses “The Power and Limits of Deep Learning.” Le Cun’s pioneering work on convolutional neural networks in the 1980s created a breakthrough in machine learning. The biggest advantage of his approach is that the features of interest in the input patterns do not need to be hand-engineered to enable effective learning; as Le Cun puts it, “the learning procedure adjusts the coefficients in all the layers so that the system automatically learns to detect the right features or combinations of features.” Convolutional nets are used in speech recognition systems like Siri and Alexa, in automatic tagging of people on applications like Facebook, and in self-driving cars. Interestingly, the AI community was, for many years, resistant to convolutional nets. It just didn’t find the results Le Cun had achieved with the technology to be credible, and they remained in the background of academic AI for many years.

One entity at the forefront of breakthrough science is the National Science Foundation. In his article on the NSF’s strategic plan, Barry Johnson discusses targets of future opportunity, from the human-technology frontier to quantum technologies and initiatives aimed at unraveling the rules of life. There are about a dozen frontiers the NSF is seeking to explore. At the same time, Johnson points, the NSF is focusing on finding ways of fostering partnerships with industry in order to drive faster commercialization of radically new technologies. This is requiring a different kind of boundary breaking, and Johnson discusses several examples.

As anyone who has spent time in the innovation profession knows, technology is only part of the challenge. Organizations resist change—even positive change—and organizational orthodoxies must often be challenged to achieve business success with a new technology. Dan Andrews and his coauthors make this point in an interesting way in their article, “Snakes and Ladders in Servitization.” Using a board game as the vehicle, the authors explored resistance to change with participants who were working to move their organizations from product-led to services-led businesses. The ladders in the board game were positive events that moved the organization forward; the snakes were regressions. By reflecting on real-world cases from their own experience, players of the game were able to identify the challenges of implementing organizational change and share techniques that have worked to address them.

Finally, in this issue’s Conversations piece, Mark Johnson, author of Reinvent Your Business Model, discusses approaches and challenges for introducing new business models into existing organizations. The first challenge is to design business models that are appropriate to a breakthrough innovation; the second is to manage the organizational resistance to doing something new. He has found one approach—helping corporate leaders to identify their “growth gap”—to be particularly effective. He also believes that a common language for business model innovation will open the door to more productive discussions on the topic, and he introduces such a language in our discussion.

Embracing change—especially change that challenges fundamental beliefs about the world, ourselves, and our organizations—is difficult. Even those of us who do this for a living are challenged. I remember my son asking me, when he was in fifth grade, what it would mean if people could be cloned. He had read an article about cloning in a Weekly Reader or something and was clearly concerned about the implications. I laughed, and told him that it would be years before scientists would be able to clone people. I told him that they were not yet able to clone even a bee, let alone a person. It was not something he needed to worry about. The very next week, the front page of the New York Times greeted us with a photograph of Dolly, the first cloned mammal. A scientist in Scotland did not understand that it was not yet possible. And, as with many of these breakthroughs, we are still struggling to absorb them into the fabric of our societies and ourselves.

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