What Watching Too Much Star Trek Gets You

August 2002: HBR's special innovation issue hits the street, and my contrarian article about the fickle nature of corporate innovation sits sandwiched between stories by the likes of Peter Drucker, Henry Chesbrough, John Seely Brown, and Richard Florida.

"Breaking Out of the Innovation Box" was not the title I had wanted, but it worked. The article broke out around the world, and suddenly people were talking about radical approaches to open innovation — my approaches.

Not long after that, I was walking out of a meeting at IBM headquarters when the phone rang. It was my boss.

"Where are you?" she asked.

"Armonk," I replied.

"How fast can you get to Savannah?"

"Savannah, Georgia? Why?"

"Someone from the Australian government is in Savannah today, and he's trying to track you down. He has your article and wants to talk about it."

I found a plane ticket and arrived in time for dinner with the CEO of the Australian Industry Group — not the government, strictly speaking, but heavily involved in the country's politics. Before I knew it, I found myself standing before a gathering of the Australian parliament in Canberra, telling them how the article's framework for open innovation could unlock new scientific discoveries by helping researchers in different companies work together. Shortly after that, the Australians proposed a plan to run a national experiment and put my ideas to the test, on the condition that I take a leave from IBM to run it. I spent four years in Australia and another in Europe discovering the ways my theory worked — and didn't work — in the real world.

In the early 2000s, the notion of open innovation was still reasonably fringe stuff in business circles. Henry Chesbrough's seminal book on the topic wasn't published until 2003. My ideas were odd and untested even for the open-source mavens and other oddballs of the day. "Breaking Out" stood proudly at the lunatic fringe of innovation. Yet HBR saw fit to publish it. And the Australians — always up for trying something wild and new — saw fit not only to endure a speech on the topic but four years of public-private partnerships to test it, refine it, smash it apart, remake it, and test it again.

I like unsolvable problems. Solutions to unsolvable problems are inherently innovative because you can't simply avoid, compromise, or negotiate your way around them. You have to rewrite the rules to make the problem irrelevant. I probably got this from watching too many Star Trek episodes as a kid. Rewriting the rules was how Captain Kirk saved the Enterprise in all the great episodes. "Captain, we are checkmated," Spock would say. And Kirk would get a twinkle in his eye and reply, "Not chess, Mr. Spock — poker!"

The unsolvable problem that has become the "white whale" of my career's own captain story was posed by Nick Donofrio, IBM's senior vice president of technology (and official protector of innovators) a year before I wrote "Breaking Out." Notably, it was in the same office I would later find myself when the Savannah call came.

"Here's a conundrum." I remember him saying. "What if there's some orphan project hiding inside Microsoft that, if combined with something I don't even know about that's hiding in one of our research labs, would be good for both companies? What if the cure for cancer is lying in pieces in different companies that don't even know to talk to one another? We need to share, but there are good reasons not to share everything. How do you know what to share, and what not to share, before you share?" Unsolvable problem. Big opportunity to change the world.

The conundrum would not get out of my head, and after months of thinking and researching everything from game theory to IP law, I came up with a business model that would, in fact, make the problem irrelevant (in theory). The HBR article was the result.

In the years since the HBR article came out, I've spent most of my career building new ventures that typically start inside big companies, universities, and government. I call this "fracking" for entrepreneurship, because while large organizations can be a great source of start-ups and other types of new ventures, it takes special techniques to activate and liberate corporate entrepreneurs. That's what I do, and it's all informed by the lessons I learned wrestling with Nick's conundrum around the world, an epic journey begun by a single HBR article. It changed my life.

What happened with the Australians? After I returned to the U.S., the program went international, with public-private organizations in the U.K. and other countries continuing to find new opportunities for open innovation between legally separate entities. The original Australian team reports that the program produced $500 million worth of commercial returns and scientific breakthroughs over eight years.

I sometimes meet students who say that they had to read the article in business school. So maybe HBR changed my life. But what I really hope is that exposure to Nick's unsolvable problem through my article has changed some of their lives. The white whale is still out there. I'm still waiting for the cure for cancer...or at least warp drive.
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