Currently living MIT graduates may have spawned more than 25,000 companies and contributed almost $2 trillion to the global economy. I was surprised and inspired by this statistic as reported in this recent article by Ed Pilkington in the Guardian about maverick genius that characterizes MIT.
As many American companies now sit in a trough of performance, constraining operations, resisting hiring and approaching stagnation, it made me wonder what there is to learn from this culture that has had such a successful performance track. Are there clues here to how companies or communities can can develop a track to greater success and contribution? In Pilkington’s article I found at least 8 key principles to nurturing a culture of innovation, influence and growth.
The challenge ahead for America is well-framed in the article by MIT’s President, Susan Hockfield. She expresses great concern about the “deficit of ambition” in the United States and a fear that the future may belong to others. Observing the level of activity taking place in Asia, she says that “you feel the pulse of people racing to a future they are going to invent. You feel that rarely any more in the US.” This concern and anxiety about leadership helps shape the institution’s mission and purpose to be “a beacon of inspiration…to create a brighter future for the world.” Consider what you do as part of the fabric of society.
Shaping a mission around advancing our world and engaging people through a profound commitment to that mission can generate that kind of energy that is transforming the globe so rapidly.
Practice – and research and practice
“Students are not so much taught as engaged and inspired.” Consider how MIT’s characteristic blend of hands-on experimentation and craftsmanship with research and intellect can engage and inspire the people in your organization.
How much of what you do is defined by policy or procedure without having drawn those who deliver for you into the experience of developing solutions?
Pilkington discovers a culture of mavericks, hackers and eccentrics at MIT, the kinds of characters you’d expect in places of creative exploration. But he also finds the paradox of the presence of a prominent antiwar activist in an institution that is known for the development of military technology. Tolerate a diversity of individual styles and behaviors.
When you hire, challenge your template for cultural fit when what you really seek are cultural misfits.
Power – and influence
Pilkington quotes an MIT professor saying, “If you come up with a brilliant idea, that’s OK. If you win a Nobel prize for your research, that’s fine. But if you take that idea and apply it and make something transformative happen, then in MIT that’s deeply admired.”
Consider the opportunity for transforming how things are done in your domain in each project you undertake.
The presence of a classical cello in a lab with sensors and other electronic gear is a catalyst to a diversity of creative developments. By intention, it is an artifact of a project to build a new kind of instrument for the classical musician, Yo Yo Ma. By accident it evolved also into an entirely different application for the pop star, Prince. An through that diversion, it became the inspiration for the development of the popular video game that turns everybody into rock stars, Rock Guitar.
Places that are rich with apparently random resources and cast-offs from other projects seem to have great potential to generate new ideas and applications through play, observations, testing and accident.Consider the importance of the presence of artifacts in your workplace.
There is much in Pilkington’s article about the character of the places and spaces housing the creative geniuses of MIT. Place is both anonymous – “there is precious little about the place that is obvious” – as well as iconic and evocative – “formed from undulating polished steel and tumbling blocks of brushed aluminium that reminds Berners-Lee, he tells me, of the higgledy-piggledy Italian village one of his relatives grew up in.” The architecture, in other words, is not so much an intentional statement of institutional identity as it is an expressive abstraction of the nature of its community and therefore a tool to support, reflect and inspire the individuals who work and develop innovations there.
Design for the unique and differential experiences of work.
MIT achieves what it does because it first developed a culture of creativity and innovation, and then let that culture act as a magnet for others. People who want to achieve great things are drawn to MIT because other people who have developed great things developed them there.
Consider the power of the stories of the creative people of your organization. These tend to be stories also about environments open to experimentation and exploration, attractive attributes to people committed to purpose and a drive to bring new things into the world.
Do it boldly.