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An Interview with Bill O’Connor

10th December 2013 | Kim Chandler McDonald

Exclusive Interview with the Founder of the Innovation Genome Project from Innovation: How Innovators Think, Act and Change Our World

In this excerpt author Kim Chandler McDonald interviews Bill O’Connor, founder of the Innovation Genome Project, an initiative at Autodesk that is researching the top 1,000 innovations in world history with a view to extrapolating patterns and insights that can be applied today. Bill works in Autodesk’s Corporate Strategy team and is the primary speechwriter for the company’s CEO and CTO.



KCM: A recurring theme in these interviews is the necessity for courage – not fearlessness, which is thoughtless and uninformed – but courage in the face of knowing the great dangers and risks ahead, and going forward in spite of them.

BOC: True innovators, the ones who have gotten things done, will always have tell-tale scars and war stories. I don’t like the army of consultants who talk about innovation as if they are experts at it. They can be very smooth, but often it seems like they haven’t ever really pushed anything through against brutal opposition. When I see someone without very apparent scars talking about ‘innovation’, I get a little suspicious. They may have read a lot about innovation, but they probably haven’t been down in the trenches doing it.

KCM: I think you’re right to be a little suspicious of salesmen talking about innovation, rather than innovators themselves.

BOC: You could argue that these innovation salesmen are like old-fashioned country preachers: their rap certainly has many of the aspects of a religious sermon and, also as with a religion, they don’t have to prove anything either! Think about it: you can do an entire engagement with a Fortune 100 company, be paid millions of dollars as a consultant and still there might be nothing new or valuable that comes of it. You might be a member of the Army of IBNU: Interesting But Not Useful.

KCM: And speaking of interesting and useful, tell me about the Genome Project.

BOC: Autodesk’s customers are designers, architects, engineers and digital artists in Hollywood’s film and games industry. They have to be innovative, for real; they can’t leave it as a theory because it’s what they’re paid for. That’s why we think so much about innovation at Autodesk. My idea was to study history’s greatest 1,000 innovations, to find the patterns and the best practices that would really help people be actually innovative. So we’re looking at everything from ‘fire to Facebook’. Every innovation goes through five phases: it’s impossible; it’s impractical, it’s nearly possible; it’s expected; and then it becomes required. It’s like the Rosetta Stone for what things pass through. We’ve had innovation for 2.6 million years; you could argue that the stone axe in Africa was the first innovation – I like to say it was invented by a woman, just to tweak the dudes in the audience. You know, some cavewoman said, ‘Screw ripping this thing apart with my bare hands: I’ll shape this rock so it’s sharp and more useful to me!’ This was the first innovation on earth…

My idea was to study those 1,000 innovations – get the patterns and the best practices and, from that, a genome. At this point we’ve looked at 200 innovations. What we found from our research is that – even if you don’t know anything about ‘innovation’ – if you put a project or a challenge in the middle of a piece of paper or a whiteboard, and I ask you seven questions about it, you will get some really innovative ideas. These questions are the true DNA of innovation throughout history. We’ve codified the Seven Essential Innovation questions (using ‘ILUMIAM’ as the mnemonic device), and people are using them to really great effect. They are:

I = What could you Imagine that would create a great experience for someone? Human flight is a great example of this, because it wasn’t rational to expect we could do it, but we just wanted to do it.

L = What can we Look at in a different way? Jobs looked at a lot of things differently (technology, design, business, people, life), and because of this we’ve got iPhones, iPads, iTunes, etc.

U = What can we Use for the first time or in a different way? Steampowered engines are a good example of this powerful innovation question.

M = Move is re-contextualizing in time or space. For instance, open innovation takes the innovation from only inside a company or organization, or even just one person’s ‘head’, and moves it to both inside and outside those locations.

I = What can we Interconnect, or connect, that we’re not connecting now? The printing press is a great example of this, because it’s an innovation combining the wine press and the stamp punch. Edison also did this when he connected the light bulb to the electrical grid.

A = What can we Alter or change? This is a lot about the ‘design’ aspect of innovation. To use another Apple example, Steve Jobs altered the performance and design of what a smart phone (which already existed) was.

M = What can we Make or create that is completely new? The United States is a great example of something completely new, because it was the first country built on a set of principles rather than by tribal or purely historical forces.

Here’s how I use the Seven Essential Innovation questions for consulting. I ask people: ‘What’s the biggest challenge/problem/opportunity in your company?’ Then I put that in the centre of the whiteboard, ask these seven questions about it, and try to get three really great ideas per question. I usually end up with at least 21 ideas and, so far, 100 percent of the time people have been satisfied with both the quality and quantity of the ideas that have come up. And my response to that is that I’m not really surprised, because these are the same questions that innovators have been using successfully for millions of years.


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