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In the history of ideas, few people better exemplify the adage, “If you want to master something, teach it,” than a 27-year-old Russian naval officer.
The officer in question? Legendary composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, of Flight of the Bumblebee fame. While still serving in the Imperial Navy in 1871, he accepted a teaching position at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, despite being deficit in formal musical training himself. To stay ahead of his students and their curriculum, he taught himself by studying one lesson ahead of his students.
Was he successful as a moonlight scholar? Well, he held the teaching post for nearly 40 years and counted Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev among his students. Oh, and the conservatory now bears his name, so yeah, you could say he was successful.
During his career, Rimsky-Korsakov counted among his close contacts and friends such luminaries as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Borodin, who in turn motivated him to continually refine his craft. Equipped with a naturally collaborative creative streak, Rimsky-Korsakov regularly contributed to (and in some cases, revised) other composer’s works, with some of his editions still preferred to this day over their original compositions.
A modern-day proponent of continuous learning and collaboration is IBM distinguished engineer and master inventor Romelia Flores. With 76 patents to her name (and another 15 pending), Romelia has built a world-class career from skillfully combining new technology with end user-centric design thinking. Along the way, she has become a sought-after mentor both inside and outside IBM.
With mentees of all ages and backgrounds, Romelia is constantly helping people navigate topics such as career paths, inventing, design thinking and working at IBM. “What I find is that it keeps me moving forward in the right direction because I’m learning from all of them. What better way to strengthen your network than to be mentoring a lot of different people, leveraging their skills and expertise. They give me different perspectives on things, and I think it’s brilliant to learn from each other. Having a network to collaborate with is really, really important. It’s your creative ecosystem for co-creation. If you have other people around you co-creating, you’ll want to co-create too.”
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Sitting down with Romelia, she shared five of her best tips for getting a diverse group of professionals to band together, innovate and make beautiful music for clients.
· Playing from the Same Sheet of Music – One instrument alone does not a symphony make. To really soar takes a group effort of individuals bringing their unique perspectives towards a common goal. “I’d say one of the biggest learnings I have from design thinking is it’s all about being collaborative, having co-creators working with you side-by-side, sharing in ideas,” said Romelia. “I think the other thing that I’ve learned is ideas just multiply. It’s simple solutions that build and build upon each other’s ideas. It’s really about being around everyone and just saying, ‘How could we make our idea even better?’ There’s a technique that we use in design thinking where we say ‘Yes, and…’. If I examine someone’s idea, I say, ‘Yes, and why don’t we do this, and why don’t we add this, and why don’t we extend with this?’”
· Competing for “First Chair” – When building up an ensemble of players, a leader may wonder if internal competition will hurt cohesion. However, allowing star players to fraternally push each other can be an effective means of creating excellence “At IBM, I worked with a certain colleague and it was generally viewed that we were competitors,” recalled Romelia. “He’d come up with an idea, and I then had to one-up his idea, and then he would one-up my idea. He and I enjoyed working with each other because we were one-upping each other to excel and bring forth really cool ideas for IBM. That’s where several of my patents came out of, working with this gentleman, where we were one-upping each other. Don’t be afraid of that.”
· The Importance of Finely Tuned Instruments – While new technology doesn’t necessarily lead to innovations in your business operations, nonetheless you want to equip your people with the best options so they can perform at their best. Instruments don’t perform themselves; allow your virtuosos to shine through them. As Romelia shared, “Imagine the world in a new way and be confident about new technologies that are coming our way so we can embrace them in the right way. You don’t want to misuse technology. You want to really be focused on harnessing the power of technology for solving something very creatively.”
· From Cacophony to Harmony – When heading into a brainstorming session, don’t start by focusing on what the finished score will look like. Instead, allow for some warm-up time where your people can stretch their ideas. Regarding idea exploration sessions at IBM, Romelia said, “One thing I love doing is getting a whole other perspective by asking the group, ‘For some of these ideas, what would we do to turn them into a gain? What would we do to really make them compelling? Or give me absurd ideas, things that you think would never happen because they’re so crazy, they’re so far out, you wouldn’t be able to implement them.’ Then once we get some of those crazy, absurd ideas, we trim them down a little and we say, ‘How would we make this feasible?’”
· Engaging the Audience – As the old THX ad once proclaimed, “The audience is listening.” Turn that on its head and pull your audience (i.e. the client’s end users who will be the beneficiaries of your project) into the group of performers. Create space for them to be a part of the solution to ensure optimal end user adoption. As Romelia put it, “Working with IBM teams, I’ll say to them, ‘Why don’t we get the clients together and talk to some of their executive stakeholders to see how interested they are at running the session?’ That executive sponsorship is really critical when working with clients because they need to be the ones driving and convincing their teams they need to utilize these design thinking approaches. Some of the best sessions I’ve had had that executive sponsorship and the willingness from the team to throw out ideas on the table and adjust them, ideate and prioritize.”
To create ovation-worthy innovations, it requires an artful balance of fearless inquiry on the possibilities, openness to collaboration and competition, a sense of empathy for the end user and sometimes even a dash of new technology. But as an innovator when you can get the mix right, it’s music to the ears.