The Secret to Creativity is Collaboration

Innovation expert Kevin Ashton explains why you don’t need a genius to invent great new products

Written by David Fielding

When it comes to the topic of innovation, Kevin Ashton has earned his cred. While working for Procter & Gamble in the late 1990s, he led a team that performed pioneering work on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. What started as an idea to use a new technology to track lipstick inventory grew into an early manifestation of the Internet of Things—Ashton actually coined the phrase.

Ashton’s first book, How to Fly a Horse, offers a clear-eyed view of some of history’s greatest discoveries and takes aim at the myth that only a Steve Jobs€“like genius can invent products that change lives. Here’s what he has to say about companies and creativity:

How did you come to work on RFID technology?

I actually did my degree at the University of London in Scandinavian studies, mainly so I could study the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. I was hired by Procter & Gamble to work in marketing and identified some business problems that could be solved with RFID. That led me to co-found the Auto-ID Center at MIT, with P&G seed-funding the research.

That sounds like a very weird journey.

Well, you know, you just take the next step from where you are, and you can end up in some unexpected places.

That seems to be a key theme in How to Fly a Horse. People take ideas as far as they can carry them, then others take them in new directions.

Yes, and the section about Coca-Cola was very much inspired by what I had learned at Procter & Gamble, which, like Coca-Cola, is what we call a consumer goods company but is really in the business of manufacturing technology.

I worked on colour cosmetics—lipstick—which you tend to think of as quite common. But the fact we’ve made them ordinary is really incredible. These products are the result of whole organizations of people working together who each only understand one piece of the puzzle they’re working on.

What do you consider a key misconception about creativity?

That it’s the product of a heroic individual. If your basic position is that an extraordinary creation is an individual act, then you have to suppose extraordinary thought processes. But the reality, without exception, is that even the greatest and most exceptional of individuals make relatively small contributions to the whole. Even for the individuals involved, the act of creation magnifies the difficulty you experience and the things you therefore accomplish in a misleading and dangerous way.

Dangerous how?

In a bunch of ways. I wrote in the book that creation is to human beings what flying is to birds. You know, we’re the only species that improves its tools. Our survival as a species—which is not guaranteed—depends entirely on our ability to adapt, and if we create a society in which 99% of the people are told they’re not creative, that they can’t be like this guy who we made a statue of, we’re limiting our inventive ability.

But if I take it to a business level, companies are successful and good when they bring value to the world. I get very frustrated as a product guy when the business news is all about stock prices—when, actually, the stock price has as much to do with business as Las Vegas has to do with sports. Investors win or lose money on the activity of business, but the activity of business is to create value.

Well put. Quickly, what  does the title How to Fly a Horse mean?

It was this wonderful thing one of the Wright brothers, Wilbur, said when trying to explain the problem of flight. So many others were trying to solve a differing problem—the problem of getting into the air. And they were flying, until they hit the ground.

The problem, as Wilbur put it, was actually one of balance and staying in control while you were in the air. He did this thing where he dropped a piece of paper to the ground, and it would dart hither and thither as it floated to the ground. And he said, “This is the style of steed we must learn to manage before flying can become an everyday sport.”

I changed steed to horse, and it became the title of the book.

To read “How to Invent a Can of Coke,” an excerpt from How to Fly a Horse that appeared in the February 2015 issue of Canadian Business, click here.


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