Innovate January 2017 On The Cover

4 Steps To Acquiring Knowledge, Building Networks And Connecting The Dots

Written By: David Whitney

“Creativity is just connecting things.” — STEVE JOBS


Steve Jobs understood the value of connections. He also understood the important role creativity plays in contributing to successful innovation outcomes. At a Stanford University graduation ceremony in which he — a college dropout — delivered the commencement address, Jobs commented, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

But, Steve Jobs is not the only famous dot connector. Serial entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson — knighted for his “services to entrepreneurship” — has a mantra to describe his propensity for connecting the dots, ABCD: Always Be Connecting the Dots. Both Jobs’ and Branson’s comments and actions reflect the importance of the core idea behind producing successful innovation: Connecting the dots.

Many creative types have a unique way of responding when asked how they do what they do. Recalling the times I asked creative people how they did something, many answers were similar to “because I saw something.” Indeed, but what they saw is beyond the realm of many (myself included), which makes creativity a mysterious part of the innovation experience.

I’ve thought about the “because I saw something” explanation for years. Part envious of and part intimidated by creatives, I wondered how they succeeded at innovation while noncreatives like me struggled. What I concluded is that creatives achieved success by connecting the similar and disparate; they combined the old with the new. Their imaginations fired on all cylinders, and they produced clever and imaginative outcomes. By doing so, they validated the Steve Jobs quote and succeeded at forming intersections between their creative and logical selves.

Legend had it that Jobs possessed an uncanny ability to see things that others didn’t see — or didn’t care to see. The Jobs quote resonates with me because it shows a willingness to tell it straight: It wasn’t scientific discovery, math wizardry or engineering proficiency — it simply draws upon an insatiable curiosity combined with a willingness to take calculated risks. This combination positioned Jobs to consistently transverse innovation’s high wire — fully aware that he was operating, in many instances, without a safety net.

Make no mistake: connecting the dots has never been easy. Indeed, the practice has grown more complex with the passage of time. Making matters more difficult, the world in which we live grows more complex by the day. That means there are more dots to connect — plus more hurdles to overcome and more competitors to beat — in order to produce successful innovation outcomes.

When successful, innovation’s connect-the-dots approach fuels the global economy’s engine into overdrive. Innovation’s economic engine often involves the production of new products, enhanced services, improved systems, and/or more efficient processes; innovation also creates next-generation technologies and/or produces new forms of intellectual property. And, the results are game changing: Most (all?) companies were, and continue to be, impacted by innovations occurring at all stages in their life cycles.

Connecting the dots may be only a figure of speech, but I see it as a spark that ignites innovation activities. Plus, it’s personal, as I happen to be good at connecting the dots. What makes me successful at connecting the dots is an ability to connect people who, when correctly aligned, produce “1+1=5” value. And, it’s not just connecting people; “dots” can be patterns or products, services or features, systems or processes or anything (within reason) that can be combined in order to produce a value that is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts. That’s why connecting the dots, when done correctly and in a timely manner, precipitates successful innovation outcomes.

So, the time to connect the dots, when it comes to innovation, is now. That’s because, well, look around you: Everyone seeks successful innovations, which is why connecting people, knowledge, technologies, user experiences, and competitive advantages result in breakthrough advances, the emergence of new opportunities and the recognition of an endless supply of possibilities. That makes innovation-driven companies — and their leaders — the dot-connectors of the global economy. Both companies and persons excel at producing creative combinations of re-formulated ideas. The science writer Steven Johnson expertly captures this re-arrangement of ideas with this quote: “Ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.” That is, connecting re-arranged dots — making do with whatever is available from a hodgepodge of leftovers — is what catalyzes discovery and fuels innovation.

For some, innovation is a scary word. Innovation generates unease because of the risks inherent in its practices, processes, and risks as well as the anxiety that surfaces when new technologies cause disruption and disarray — plus the uncomfortableness associated with change, whatever the type. Regardless of the feelings about it, innovation is not so much as something new; instead, innovation is the practice and process of associating and connecting the dots in new, creative and problem-solving ways.

I teach college students studying to be engineers. All of the students are bright, nearly all of them are ambitious, most of them are creative and nearly all of them are uncertain as to how they will succeed at innovation. Remember: My students are hardwired to solve problems. Over the course of a semester, students realize they possess the talent to solve problems; during the semester, they are startled to realize that successful innovations require the execution of an action plan that is designed to deliver the solution(s). Before this realization, nearly all my students think “successful” is about “I have a great idea” becoming part of the innovation equation.

As my students develop their personal innovation knowledge bases, they follow a process used by organizations around the world. For example, take a company’s knowledge base: It takes time to assemble and store the company’s institutional knowledge base. That base serves as a foundation and is followed by more time spent aligning the organization’s knowledge base with that of other companies within its own industry. (And, even more time is then spent by the company capturing and aligning a knowledge base outside its own industry.)

To mirror the steps taken by my students as well as by innovation centric companies around the world, follow these four steps to acquire knowledge, build networks and connect the dots:

1. Build New, and Expand Existing, Knowledge Networks: As more knowledge is learned, the number of dots identified as connectable grows. That’s because building new, and expanding existing, knowledge networks involves meeting people, pursuing opportunities, understanding markets, applying research, exercising creativity, etc. All of these activities produce more connectable dots inside and outside new and existing networks.

2. Acquire and Apply Knowledge: Acquiring new knowledge is admirable, yet what is more important is to apply it in ways that enhance what is already known. The most successful creatives and innovators I know are experts at applying newly acquired knowledge to what already exists in them and within their knowledge networks. Doing so follows the “1+1=5” value formula.

3. Capture and Store Knowledge: It’s no secret that dots get connected everywhere and at any time. What I don’t see much of — and what is something I need to improve on in myself — is capturing new knowledge and storing it with existing knowledge. I vow to improve my performance in this area by recognizing that new knowledge represents new connectable dots; knowing this, I recognize the potential of adding value to new and existing networks and increasing the value of new and existing connections.

4. Expand Networks: By constantly learning and applying newly acquired knowledge, the more successful creatives and innovators increase their opportunities by orders of magnitude due to the growth of their knowledge networks.

So, the next time you are tasked with producing problem-solving innovations, accept the challenge. Remember to inject new knowledge into the formula and allow time for knowledge to be acquired and connections to be made; it is important to leverage both knowledge and connections. Because who knows? Your next big problem solving innovation could be only one connection away.


DAVID WHITNEY serves as the assistant director in the UF Engineering Innovation Institute. Whitney previously served as the entrepreneur in residence in the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and teaches both undergraduate and graduate students in the college. The courses, Entrepreneurship for Engineers and Engineering Innovation, use real-world examples and the experiences of entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and innovators to teach engineers how to change the world. In addition to his roles at UF, Whitney is the founding managing director of Energent Ventures LLC, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven company. Whitney is also co-chair of Innovation Gainesville 2.0, a regional-based initiative in which people and organizations collaborate to strengthen Gainesville’s innovation economy by bringing 3,500 jobs and securing $250 million in capital investment to the region.

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