From the Desk of Laurent Levy: How Creative Inquiry Helps Businesses Build a Culture of Innovation
Innovation Culture: From the Desk of Laurent Levy
By Laurent Levy
We’ve all heard the story. A young Isaac Newton is sitting under an apple tree when — bonk — an apple falls and hits him over the head. This causes the “a-ha” moment that leads him to wonder why things only fall down, rather than sideways or upwards. The answer? Newton’s law of gravitation.
While the story was probably apocryphal — it was more likely that Newton’s inspiration came from watching an apple fall, rather than being hit by one on the head — it is a great example of how scientific observation prompts scientists to ask questions about the world around them. (i.e., why do apples only fall downward?).
Does this mean that observation is the only method of deriving scientific questions? Hardly. Consider how Albert Einstein developed the theory of general relativity, a major building block of modern physics.
Rather than wait for an apple (or any other object!) to guide him to scientific questions, Einstein dropped a small boat into the water, set himself drift, and allowed his mind to wander aimlessly. It was from a new vantage point in his imagination that he first conceived of the idea that gravity affected the very fabric of space-time.
There’s no doubt that Newton was a genius physicist. But like Einstein, I don’t wait for apples to fall to spark new ideas. One of the biggest — if not the biggest — traits I look for in new members of my team is a powerful imagination. And I make sure to provide plenty of opportunities for them to set their minds adrift and think more expansively.
Ask the Questions You Don’t Yet Know to Ask
A whopping 95 percent of business leaders see innovation as essential to the survival of their companies. But despite articulating a desire to innovate, these leaders don’t always support a culture of innovation: Over 75 percent of them think they empower teams to innovate, while only 45 percent of team members actually feel empowered to do so.
For Issac and Einstein, this difference between being guided by a question (i.e., “why did the apple fall from the tree?”) and letting creative inquiry lead you to new vistas (i.e., where you might conceive mind-blowing ideas about space-time) meant all the difference between seeing the universe in one or four dimensions.
Letting creative inquiry lead the way is a method Nanobiotix embraces not only as part of our strategy to develop a culture of innovation, but also as one of our core tenets. In fact, we founded Nanobiotix in 2003 with a singular goal — to approach problems from a new angle.
I love epic stories about having the courage to strive for excellence. Here’s one of them: In 2005, Elon Musk, the entrepreneur, founder, and CEO of aerospace company, SpaceX, told Fast Company that the company might need to make a few improvements as it attempted to create the first completely privately funded rocket in history ever to make it into orbit.
In 2017, SpaceX shared a video on YouTube called, “How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster.” Set to lively music, the video was a montage of clips showing rockets crashing and exploding. In the video’s subtitles, SpaceX offered this humorous reaction: “#$ra&%*?!^*&^%^$!”
Nanobiotix could have made a similar video in our not-so-ancient history — but rather than film explosions of rockets set to go to space, we could have depicted our endeavors to make the biggest impact for patients at nanoscale. Our first potential product, NBTXR3, may change the future of cancer treatment. But getting to this great idea meant we first had to scrap a good idea even though it was working.
Before developing NBTXR3, Nanobiotix explored using several other types of nanoparticles. Our first concept was to attach magnetic nanoparticles to structures within cells that would then realign and kill the cells when activated by MRI’s magnetic field. This concept yielded good data and we prepared to launch a clinical development program that would put us on the path to our first commercial product.
But while the concept worked, we were concerned it wouldn’t be entirely practical, as new doctors would need to be trained to use MRI machines. So, we pivoted to using high Z nanoparticles (nanoparticles with a large number of electrons per atom that could be used with radiotherapy) because radiotherapy was already a staple of therapeutic regimens in oncology. Soon, we gathered the first data suggesting that we could kill cancer cells with a nanoparticle activated by radiotherapy.
And voilà, we decided that NBTXR3 was potentially a better way forward. It’s important to note that no team member was harmed in the process — we simply strove for excellence and built a designed a great innovation rather than move forward with a “good enough” therapeutic. This is allowing us to explore a more expansive pathway to cancer treatment.
Give Teams the Space to Use Their Imagination
Of course, having the courage to let new bold questions lead to disruptive innovations is only a part of a company’s story. Let’s return to the example of SpaceX. To date, the cumulative total of all the company’s missions is 135. The Falcon 9 rocket accounts for 127 of these missions, and it has a 98.43 percent success rate. SpaceX is well on its way to changing the entire aerospace industry, and it’s paving the way for humans to become an interplanetary species. I like to think that Nanobiotix is on a similar trajectory, only we’re building innovative pathways that may lead to better outcomes for patients with diseases like cancer.
Building a high-performance culture of innovation requires a lot of effort — but we need to rethink what that culture looks like and what kind of minds must populate it. Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” He wasn’t a linear thinker — he let his mind wander to new vistas that presented the universe from a different perspective.
And so, I challenge us all to support imagination in the workplace. Rather than task a team to answer only specific questions to what they see right in front of them, we need to consider where the process of inquiry might lead them. The answers are limitless.
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