by Dr. Kenneth Olree
The 1965 Nobel laureate in physics, Richard Feynman, gave a lecture in 1959 entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” In this lecture, he described a new world of physics, a world in which individual atoms might be manipulated to create new structures with new properties, including “infinitesimal machines.” As a physicist, Feynman recognized that there were huge opportunities to explore the world of the very small. He knew that new discoveries and manipulations at the atomic level would lead to innovative solutions to problems. Although not much happened in the intervening 30 years since his lecture, in the 1990s the field of nanotechnology exploded. Today, nanotechnology products enhance common everyday items such as sunscreens, sporting-goods equipment, medical diagnostics, and handheld consumer electronics.
In the case of Feynman’s lecture, the realization of what could be possible didn’t materialize until some 50 or more years later. Envisioning the theoretically possible is important, as is scientific exploration based on those visions. However, these processes alone are unlikely to solve our contemporary problems until 50 to 100 years from today.
For today’s innovations, there’s plenty of room in the interstice—of people, experiences, and technology.
An interstice usually denotes a small space, such as the space between opposite sides of a wall, a space so small as to not be useful for much of anything. Most live their entire lives external to the wall, rarely considering the space in between. The interstice is unexplored territory.
The space between any two unique boundaries may be small, but if we consider the variation in people, experiences, and technology, the sum of the interstitial spaces between these variations is quite large. The larger the number of variations, the larger the sum of interstitial spaces, and the greater the opportunity to innovate.
A startup with like-minded people often has a hard time innovating because the walls that surround them block their vision. They desire to innovate an out-of-the-box solution yet don’t know what exists outside the box. How would they ever know if their solution is appropriate?
An entrepreneurial startup should have people with complimentary skills. They should have a common vision and enjoy each other’s company, but they should also bring diverse assets to the venture. It is much easier to explore the interstice when approaching it from opposite sides and moving toward each other.
In developing engineering and business teams, I’ve come to understand the importance of leveraging the inherent strengths of various personalities. Generally, engineering students would rather think deeply about how to make their code or CAD package elegantly solve a technical problem than to present that elegant solution to others. Asking them to cold-call potential customers gets me that deer-in-the-headlights response. On the other hand, business students think nothing of cold-calling potential customers; in fact, they’re energized by the thought. However, asking them to work through a two-hour CAD tutorial in preparation of 3D-printing a minimum viable product can make them intimidated and very uneasy.
Many entrepreneurs are innovative, in part, because they have opened themselves up to sundry experiences. These provide the mental flexibility to see solutions others might miss. These entrepreneurs are moving through the interstice through these experiences. Innovation doesn’t require a flash of genius or new scientific discovery. However, innovation is clearer to them because they have a different vantage point. They not only see the room in the interstice but the bridge that could span it.
As we prepare our student business teams for Governor’s Cup competitions, we recruit campus-wide, from all disciplines. We value the input of the management or finance student as much as the engineering, exercise science, or fashion merchandising student. We seek the unique insights students bring from differing academic preparations, hometowns, genders, nationalities, or racial identities.
We also know that academics have very different perspectives than practitioners starting and running businesses every day. To give us additional insights, we seek to partner with these day-to-day entrepreneurs. We know that the view from the ivory tower of academia is not the same as the view of those with boots on the ground. Partnering together shines a light in the interstice, making innovation more likely.
Innovation is hard, and even harder when attempted alone. It’s easy to dig deeper into our own knowledge base and just to work harder at what we do best. Nevertheless, it might be more fruitful to explore those things new to us, to collaborate with those we sometimes don’t understand, and to work as generalists rather than specialists. Doing this, we’ll find plenty of room for innovation in the interstice.
Dr. Kenneth Olree is an associate professor of business administration at Harding University and director of the Waldron Center for Entrepreneurship and Family Business.