Doing Better at Doing Good

Doing Better: More collaboration key to spurring innovation in NC

CorrespondentsMay 10, 2014 

The Wright Brothers’ pioneering flight near Kitty Hawk in December 1903 is an achievement still celebrated widely across North Carolina, from our “First in Flight” license plates to our history books.

Now, the brothers are back in the news again, featured in a new book that tells a story you probably haven’t heard: What happened after their historic flight.

Instead of quickly building on their momentum, the brothers hid their airplane for years, consumed by bitter legal fights with rival inventors. “Before sharing their invention with the world, they wanted to be certain that they had secured a patent that would cover the very notion of controlled flight itself,” Lawrence Goldstone, author of the freshly released “Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies,” wrote in a recent column for The Wall Street Journal. “Their intention – about which they were utterly candid – was to collect royalties on every airplane produced.”

These legal conflicts continued for more than a decade before the U.S. government, entering World War I, ended the stalemate by mandating open sharing of aviation technologies. By then Wilbur Wright was dead of typhoid fever and Orville Wright had sold his share of the company they’d founded together.

Their company underachieved because their legal battles prevented them from improving their invention, says creativity expert Keith Sawyer, the Morgan Distinguished Professor of Educational Innovations at UNC-Chapel Hill. Sawyer also recounts the Wright Brothers’ legal saga in his book “Group Genius,” focusing on the crushing impact it had on their own creativity – and the lessons we can learn more than a century later from their mistakes.

Stronger bonds needed

The brothers’ insistence on going it alone instead of cooperating with other inventors, Sawyer says, was their biggest misstep.

“We have these lone-genius myths about where inventions come from,” Sawyer says. “It’s an easy story to tell. But, if you scratch beneath the surface, you find that it’s a gross simplification.”

By fixating on their own perceived genius, the Wright Brothers removed themselves from what Sawyer terms “the collaborative web” – a broader social network of contributors that is almost always at the root of successful inventions. That web was especially robust among airplane inventors across Europe, where plane designs quickly overshadowed American models.

A century later, the collaborative web remains crucial for innovation – and it’s thriving today in North Carolina. Our columns over the past several years have explored how individuals and groups here regularly partner to spark change in business, education, health care and the environment.

Still, Sawyer believes we can do better. The Triangle and the Charlotte region, for example, have many of the key ingredients for world-class innovation – a sizeable population and a well-educated workforce with varied knowledge and perspectives. But to achieve the high-powered innovative culture of the San Francisco Bay area, which Sawyer considers the best in the world, there’s another element that needs work – stronger social and professional bonds across our communities.

No easy prescription

Most break-through ideas, he says, are the result of unexpected connections between people and ideas that seem, at first glance, too unrelated to be helpful. It’s not unusual in the Bay Area to see bankers mingling with fashion designers and scientists chatting with salespeople. It’s pretty unusual in most other places, though, because of the natural human tendency to sort ourselves by functional expertise and industry.

How to build that connective social tissue across communities here at home?

“There’s no easy prescription, but you can’t do it from the top down,” Sawyer says. “This kind of dynamic has to emerge from the bottom up.” And the best place to start is with ourselves.

Make it a goal this summer to plug into a new community and talk to a handful of people whose expertise and ideas are vastly different from yours. There’s no shortage of these types of opportunities, whether it’s exploring emerging innovation at Packard Place in Charlotte, American Underground in Durham/ Raleigh, the N.C. Biotechnology Center, or HQ Raleigh and Designbox in our capital city. Or you can attend events like Innovate Raleigh, the Institute for Emerging Issues, or Paradoxus.

Coming out of these experiences, be proactive about following up so you can carry the learning and relationships into new conversations and networks. The insights you gain might just reinvigorate your own thinking – and help our own collaborative web take flight.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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