The book is engagingly written, describing Priestly in both his positive and negative qualities and how his work fits into the greater context of what was happening in England and on the larger global stage. One theme that was repeated throughout the story has to do with his deep interest in many areas: natural philosophy, religion, and politics being the primary areas. He was deeply curious in all these areas with the best evidence being his prodigious talent for writing in all these areas. The fact that he was interested in all these things was not enough to make him an important figure. He had the opportunity to interact with many of the leading thinkers of his time from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to Antoine Lavoisier to the members of the Royal Society. Along with this wonderful social network, Priestly’s vast interests also gave him an intellectual and idea network that was perfect for the age of amazing discoveries and thinking in this age. And on top of these fantastic networks of people and ideas, Priestly (and many others of this age) had another key quality: he had the leisure to explore these things.
This snippet points to several important preconditions for innovation or paradigm shift: (i) mastery of more than one subject, (ii) a social/professional network that allows the innovator to discuss and test ideas, and (iii) time. Of these three, time is sometimes the most challenging. In our world of hiring freezes where fewer are doing more, time is the rarest of commodities. Yet, our minds need time to map one area of mastery on another and to elicit insights. And, it takes time to find and engage the right people in your network to discuss and test those ideas. Finally, it takes time to bring an innovation to market and measure its impact.*
But leisure implies more than just time. It also implies having the freedom to choose how to spend one’s time. It isn’t enough for an employer to say “take a day and innovate.” What’s really needed is protected time in which you are free to follow your interests. In doing so, you engage not only your intellect but your passion, which is another critical ingredient for innovation. Passion leads you to the insight that others who are less engaged in the subject miss.
While necessity may be the mother of invention, time is the father of innovation. And, in the case of innovation, perhaps lots of time is necessary. So, how do you make the time for innovation?
*Updated: Thomas Vander Wal pointed me to a post of his that discusses a failure by Boeing to give innovation an opportunity to take root and show results: Acceptance of Innovation Takes Time. It seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same.
[Photo Credit: Micky]