06/13/2008 09:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Real Artists Ship

How is it that every article and book I read about innovation is so un-innovative? You'd think that, with a subject like that, authors would attempt a modicum of creativity themselves. But instead we get the same old chestnuts: innovations happens when there's a critical mass of unbelievably brilliant, rich men brainstorming away without any limitation to their thinking.

Once again, in this month's New Yorker innovation edition, there's the tired old story of how Nathan Myhrvold took his Microsoft millions and ploughed it into what Malcolm Gladwell calls a 'breakthrough factory'. Mostly he tells of wealthy men flying thousands of miles to get together and compare intellects. Five hundred patents a year get filed and everyone feels very clever.

But while filing patents is expensive, ideas are cheap. Of course, when you bring together a room full of competitive, confident, brainy guys you get ideas -- what else could you get? The hard thing in business isn't having ideas but knowing what to do with them. Figuring out how to bring goods and services to market efficiently, at prices people can afford, conforming to standards of reliability and usability that customers will tolerate -- that's the tough stuff.

Oops - did I mention customers? How surprising, in the context of innovation. Because whichever innovation guru you care to read, you won't find references to customers. No, the innovation world still apparently believes that wisdom lies with the guys on top (yes, it usually is guys) and the pathetic minion at the end of the food chain -- the customer -- isn't worth a mention. The innovation world, in other words, is fundamentally elitist and, to me, seems remarkably old-fashioned.

What I'd rather see these big brains tackle is harder: how to get from your workforce the levels of creativity and innovation that they are capable of. I don't need a room of California brain boxes to get new ideas; I regularly convene groups of twenty people -- at any level of an organization -- who, in a matter of hours, can compile a list of twenty products or services that are perfectly viable, executable and desirable. This isn't my brilliance -- it's theirs.

That this can happen so easily serves perfectly to illustrate Percy Barnevik's estimate that most companies use no more than about ten percent of their workforce's intellectual capacity. It's an incredible waste -- and the world is desperately in need of leadership innovation prepared to unleash the creativity that most companies stifle. Figure that one out and you'll have a chain reaction of innovative ideas: one that is sustainable and rewarding, not a once-a-year gathering in fancy places.

And if you think innovative talent lies untapped inside the workforce -- that is as nothing compares to the creativity that could come from customer if companies only knew how to talk to them. Instead, mostly what we all experience is what Shoshana Zuboff calls a "chasm of rage and despair" that separates seller from buyer. Instead of talking, innovation meisters might consider listening.

I'm sure Nathan and his buddies have a lot of fun swapping scientific papers and pretending to be polymaths. And I'm sincerely impressed that they can master cancer, dinosaurs and nuclear energy without pausing for breath. It makes me wonder, really, why the world is in such a mess when we have such brilliant thinkers among us. Maybe it's because doing is actually harder than imagining. Or as Steve Jobs said: Real Artists Ship.