How Taking A Detour Can Actually Lead To Greater Innovation

The "father of microsurgery" can teach us a few things about innovation. For one thing, the road to getting there is a journey full of detours, not a straight trajectory.

Back from U.S. Navy service in World War II, a college degree in hand, as well as rejection letters from all 23 of the medical schools to which he had applied, young Julius Jacobson enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a Ph.D. degree in cell physiology. In the lab he stared through a microscope, all day, every day. That daily routine in his career detour would one day have a profound effect on the practice of medicine.

Eventually accepted by Johns Hopkins and earning his medical degree, Jacobson did his surgical residency at Presbyterian Hospital in New York and then took the position of Director of Surgical Research at the University of Vermont.

His first project there, as part of testing a new veterinary drug, was to stop a dog's nerves from functioning. He realized that the only way to know if all of the nerves had been interrupted was to cut the artery in two and then reconnect it. But he and everyone else in medicine believed that the artery was too small for that.

And then it came to him—look at the artery under a microscope!

The problem was not that the artery was too small to reconnect. The problem was that it was too small to see. This insight, in 1960, launched the field of microvascular surgery. The re-implantation of severed limbs, heart bypass surgery, and a myriad of other surgical procedures became possible.

"And the only reason I had that idea was because I couldn't get into medical school and had spent so much time in front of a microscope," Dr. Jacobson says.

Because Jacobson did not take the direct route to medical school, but rather took a detour to the world of cell physiology, he had insight and intuitions that other doctors did not. This intuition, which had become an idea, was transformed into an innovation, and he used it to create value.

We can learn a great deal about innovation from this story:

The innovation that will open up the next opportunity for us probably lies just beyond the boundary of what we and our colleagues think we know.

Based on Everything Connects: How To Transform And Lead In The Age Of Creativity, Innovation And Sustainability (McGraw Hill, 2014). Copyright (c) 2014 by Faisal Hoque. All rights reserved.

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