Innovationeering: The six degrees of innovation

Nine decades ago, Hungarian playwright and poet Frigyes Karinthy proposed the concept of "six degrees of separation," in which he maintained that all world citizens are only six or fewer social connections away from one another.

Perhaps you've heard of the hypothesis, seen the 1993 movie (starring Donald Sutherland, Stockard Channing and a young Will Smith) or laughed at the Kevin Bacon-centric parody of the postulate.

I was inspired to combine Karinthy's numerology with Peter Drucker's "seven sources of innovation" from his landmark book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles, when I described the "six degrees of innovation." Included in my 2016 book, Innovation the Cleveland Clinic Way, this taxonomy was meant to prepare institutional innovation leaders to appreciate and gestate the creative thought that emanates from several typical sources and shares established characteristics.

I maintain that the contemporary innovation apparatus must be adequately organized and resourced to channel intellectual properties through one of the following six degrees:

  • Opportunistic: The "lightning strike" or "Eureka" version of innovation results from a fertile environment, an opportune event and a prepared mind.
  • Organic: Although it can be disruptive, organic innovation is the blocking and tackling of creative thought development; it's pushing the frontier with talented innovators supported by an experienced infrastructure.
  • Synthetic: Cross-pollination of people and their diverse knowledge bases invites breakthrough innovation. We all have locks on our campuses — I bet the keys already exist in the minds of a potential collaborator.
  • Geographic: Healthcare represents the largest concentrated sector of the American economy (almost 20 percent of our GDP). Healthcare innovation leaders should be the nexus between our sector and the rest of the world so the exchange of new ideas and development of synergies will define our respective and collective futures.
  • Strategic: Innovation's holy grail is achieved when unmet needs are identified and then resourced minds innovate around the topic. This is where efficiency is introduced into the typical nonlinear path.
  • Telescopic: Let's face it, some people just see further. Perhaps it is because, like Newton, they stand on the shoulders of giants, or perhaps they are just wired differently; regardless, always be open to crazy ideas — they just may work.

If operated in fullness, institutional innovation should be able to process opportunities of all types, making it accessible to innovators of all stripes. There is no one model or uniform pipeline for all intellectual contributions. Today's innovation leaders must be versatile and visionary. 

Each of these six degrees will be explored in greater depth in other Innovationeering installments, but understanding that innovation doesn't come in one flavor or package is a key initial step in erecting an innovation architecture. It requires more than just keeping one's eyes open: It's about having established triage and gestation mechanisms in place.

Knowing that innovation comes in different packages and requires different approaches is one of the signs of a mature milieu. If done correctly, the six degrees of innovation and six degrees of separation converge: No one is more than a few steps away from having their lives improved or extended by the power of innovation.

Thomas J. Graham, MD, is a clinical professor and director of strategic planning and innovation in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at NYU Langone Health. Dr. Graham, formerly the inaugural chief innovation officer of Cleveland Clinic, is the author of Innovation the Cleveland Clinic Way.

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