Doing Better at Doing Good

Duke provost learned about innovation from two masters

June 9, 2012 

What can Steve Jobs and Bill Gates teach us about the secrets of innovation?

One sure way to find out: ask the woman who worked personally with both of them – and now calls North Carolina home.

As senior adviser to the president and provost for innovation and entrepreneurship at Duke University, Kimberly Jenkins brings plenty to the conversation in her own right. She’s the former president of the Internet Policy Institute and founder of Highway 1, an organization that helps the U.S. government improve its effectiveness through information technology.

She worked with Gates earlier in her career at Microsoft, where she created its education division. And she got to know Jobs by leading market development at NeXT, a technology company he founded in the mid-1980s after leaving Apple.

As we seek to unleash potential and growth in business and social sector enterprises across the state, Jenkins offers a wealth of expertise in this arena.

Among her most critical observations: innovation is often short-circuited by common misconceptions of how it actually happens.

Jenkins points in particular to four myths about what drives successful innovation and entrepreneurship:

Myth No. 1: An entrepreneurial mindset is innate.

“Most people assume it’s all about being risk-oriented, and you either are that way or you’re not,” Jenkins says. In fact, effective innovation involves a range of traits, and all of them can be learned, including the ability to take well-considered risks.

Learning how to observe carefully and also to spot the links between seemingly disparate ideas and information, for example, are key. “Steve talked a lot about the importance of connecting things,” she says. Harvard innovation thought leader Clayton Christensen has identified several skills that can be practiced, such as asking questions, networking and experimenting.

Myth No. 2: Innovation is a solo act.

In reality, “eureka!” moments usually don’t result from geniuses working alone. Teams get better results, especially those with real diversity in their viewpoints and expertise. When engineers get together with artists, when sociologists mingle with mathematicians, good things can emerge.

So, too, can chaos. That’s why strong leadership becomes especially important. Bringing together people who see the world in wildly different ways can cause friction, and finding ways to motivate teams becomes as crucial as the ideas themselves. “You have to get people to work together,” Jenkins says. “You have to get them to persist and endure.”

Myth No. 3: Innovative ideas sell themselves.

There’s a common misunderstanding, Jenkins says, that innovation is all about coming up with a spectacular idea – and then everyone instantly recognizes how great it is and lines up behind it. But in helping both Gates and Jobs get fledgling companies off the ground, she saw something different: passion and hard work matter more.

At Microsoft, Jenkins proposed the novel idea of selling the company’s products to universities. Her immediate boss wasn’t enthusiastic. Neither was Gates. Undeterred, Jenkins said she would resign if they didn’t let her try. They did, and her education division grew into one of the company’s biggest contributors.

Myth No. 4: Liberal arts won’t serve entrepreneurs well.

Working on a university campus, Jenkins sees people interested in innovation and entrepreneurship make a faulty assumption: engineering, business and the hard sciences are the surest path to success. Certainly, they have an important role to play. Jenkins herself earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Duke.

But it’s the historians, graphic artists, sociologists and economists who are often highly effective at grasping the big picture and making the unexpected connections that spark innovation. Jobs was a huge advocate of recruiting talent from the arts and humanities, Jenkins says.

Indeed, Jobs dabbled in courses focused on creativity during a brief undergraduate stint at Reed College. He later recounted how dropping in on a calligraphy course ultimately inspired the pioneering typefaces on the Macintosh computer.

Jenkins, who has taught entrepreneurship at UNC-Chapel Hill and shared her expertise as a board member with health systems, schools and cultural institutions throughout the Triangle, believes many of us can develop the skills needed to create jobs and tackle challenges from the ground up. And that’s a pretty innovative notion in itself.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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