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Give your team the freedom to ‘wander’ and innovation will flow

This engineering professor and tech founder draws parallels between academia and entreprenership—and how both come up with world-changing ideas.

Give your team the freedom to ‘wander’ and innovation will flow
[Source photo: Roell de Ram /Unsplash]
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Working in academia requires the ability to wander. Sure, there are overarching objectives, but keeping an open mind, checking your biases, and not being afraid to try something new on the journey to your goal is paramount.

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It’s this willingness to wander to which Amazon attributes its massive success. “Wandering is an essential counterbalance to efficiency,” says its CEO, Jeff Bezos. “You need to employ both. The outsized discoveries—the “non-linear” ones—are highly likely to require wandering.” In other words, to make real breakthroughs, it’s important not to be too attached to a specific path, idea, or outcome.

Wandering is also essential for innovating at a startup. In fact, there are many parallels between working in academia and at a startup: They both tend to attract people who are endlessly curious, it requires a lot of trial and error, and the work being done ultimately has the potential to change our world.

This time next year, I’ll be coming up on 20 years working as a professor at a major university. Throughout the course of my teaching career, I’ve learned a few key lessons that serve me in my current role as chief scientist at computational storage startup ScaleFlux

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Recognize and appreciate people’s differences

Being a professor, I’ve witnessed many different learning styles. Some students catch on to new concepts right away, whereas others need more time to process information. Everyone learns differently, and just because an individual doesn’t grasp something immediately doesn’t mean they won’t surprise you later.


Related: Amazon’s unstoppable rise


The same goes for employees learning and working within a startup. Acknowledging (and even celebrating!) people’s differences leads to better business outcomes and a happier workforce. Pioneering companies like SAP, HPE, and Microsoft have recently made it a point to seek out neurodiverse talent for the value this diversity brings to their teams 

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At a startup, the process of taking something from just a concept into a working product can be long and arduous. As a leader, having a little patience and understanding can go a long way.

Let them do their thing

By the time my students reach the third or fourth year of their PhD program, they really start to make strides in independent thinking and innovation. As both a professor and a leader at a startup, I can’t overstate the importance of not over-managing people. Students and employees alike need room to think for themselves, explore, and draw their own conclusions.

For some leaders, this might sometimes serve as a lesson in humility. Just because someone holds a senior role doesn’t mean there’s not a great deal their pupils can teach them. I once assigned a former student of mine a task that I, frankly, had no idea how to accomplish. They quickly took to the work, figured it out on their own, and actually ended up teaching me. When left to their own devices, people can become very innovative.

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Get out of your bubble

In academia, there can be the tendency to get trapped in the research bubble. People get stuck in the routine of conducting research and publishing papers with little regard for the practical relevance of what they’re researching (this is why I would continually change my area of focus).

It’s easy to perpetuate this same cycle at a startup, too. If you live and breathe your product, there’s little time left over for getting out of your comfort zone. To combat this, it’s critical to stay curious and do your own independent, ongoing research outside of your specific projects. Interact with folks in different spaces and ask what they’re working on; read research papers on a topic separate from your usual focus; diversify your own personal interests and hobbies. Branching out fuels new ideas and keeps you moving forward.

Don’t overcomplicate things

Sometimes, startups take on problems that are simply too complex. And the same can be said for academia, where elaborate and complicated research initiatives are commonplace. At a startup, it’s important to drill down to a specific problem you’re trying to solve in order to create a product that is effective and streamlined.

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Being ambitious is great, but it’s also critical to keep ideas simple so that you can execute on them in an organized and timely manner. In my current role at a startup, I’ve always made a point to focus on simple ideas, and it has given us the ability to innovate quickly.

As I continue my career as both a professor and an IT leader, there are no doubt more lessons to be learned along the way. Staying curious and keeping an open mind can help myself and others—no matter the role—stay open to new experiences and opportunities.


Tong Zhang is chief scientist and cofounder of ScaleFlux and a professor in the Electrical, Computer and Systems Engineering Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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