How to find innovative solutions and implement them was the focus of a recent House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies. The Department of Homeland Security’s Seán McGurk told the committee that the agency hoped to “speed the commercialization of cybersecurity research innovations” through “test beds.” But AT&T’s Chief Security Officer Edward Amoroso, Ph.D., told the subcommittee that the government’s penchant for an “overly prescriptive approach” stifles innovation and makes it hard to defeat cyber adversaries, who are dynamic and unencumbered by rules.
Brigadier General Michael Shields, speaking to security professionals at an InfraGard meeting about the IED threat, also noted the nimbleness of adversaries and the challenge of finding innovative ways to stay ahead. One way that he is trying to help his team pursue innovation is to reverse the typical workday where an analyst spends 80 percent of his or her time reading reports and only 20 percent on creative thinking. Shields is trying to turn that around by leveraging the ability of computers to help with intelligence analysis, which could make it easier for the human analysts to spend more time thinking about solutions. To further spur innovation, he is leveraging cutting-edge information tools and techniques, such as knowledge visualization and immersive holographic modeling, to simulate countermeasures in a 3D multiuser collaborative experience.
Many leaders have struggled with how to spur innovation. As Joshua Gans in a recent Harvard Business Review blog notes, a popular notion today is that failure is an important precursor to innovation—the essential takeaway being that people have to be free to fail if they are to break new ground. Gans considers elements such as how to lower the cost of failures, learn from them, and incentivize successes. But if all you needed to innovate was the ability to fail, we’d all be innovators, he adds.
More to the point is the ability to see what others miss, whether that’s a lesson from a failure or untapped potential. A case in point is Harry Coover, the inventor of Super Glue, who died in March. As the Washington Post reported “Dr. Coover was happy to admit that his invention—which had been used to seal blood vessels in open-heart surgery, identify criminals in forensic labs and assemble atomic bombs—occurred by accident.” In fact, Coover had been trying to develop an aircraft windshield coating. That might have been the end of it if Coover had not been open to other possible applications. He knew how to look beyond his immediate focus. Steven Johnson, in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, calls such repurposing “exaptation.”
But perhaps the most important ingredient for innovation is an open mind. As the general put it, “We don’t want people who think outside of the box; we want people who don’t believe the box exists.”