The Lost Einsteins - Losing Genius At Work

Innovation is vital to an organisation’s ongoing success - and also for the progress of humanity. Raj Chetty, from Stanford University, takes the importance of innovation seriously, and has been leading the Equality of Opportunity project - exploring what factors lead to innovation success.

Their methodology is comprehensive yet a simple fit - the researchers have analysed millions of tax records to understand the environment the young innovators - as measured by patent holders - grew up in. They could then cross-reference these with school reports to get a detailed picture of the young innovators’ lives.

The findings are, unfortunately, not surprising. Students who scored high in maths at school were more likely to become inventors. However - the students who came from a wealthy family - and were good at maths - were six times more likely to be an innovator than a similar skilled student, from a poor background.

The report highlights the impact of wealth, gender and race on these young innovators, leading the researcher to lament the “lost Einsteins” who never innovated due to seemingly unrelated factors.

Chetty concludes with a simple solution - based on a uniqueness in the data set.

“Children who grow up exposed to a particular type of invention or inventor are far more likely to follow that path. Growing up around patent holders for, say, amplifiers makes someone far more likely to become an amplifier-related inventor. Similarly, girls who grow up in areas with a lot of female patent holders — like central New Jersey (a biotech hub) or Honolulu — are more likely to become inventors.”

So, the solution? Create these social networks and expose children to innovation - and see them catch it.

It is likely that workplaces suffer from a similar case of “Lost Einsteins.” From my experience, there are a range of factors that can inhibit an employees’ ability to innovate - including gender, race, but also their function, the firm’s definition of innovation, expectations of innovation, and physical location within the organisation.

For example, one business I have worked with this year have unconsciously assumed that “Innovation” equals “Digital”. The result?

A large part of the organisation who are not involved in innovation projects - or involved when identifying pain points or generating new solutions.

Similarly, most innovation boards and groups I encounter have an over-representation of white men - normally those who have been with the organisation for a significant length of time.

The result? As one long-time employee of GE commented when they began to democratise innovation - “For 25 years you’ve had my hands when you could have had my brains as well - for nothing.”

The most valuable resource within your organisation is your people. The most powerful innovations will be designed and led by them - so the most prudent actions will seek to develop their capabilities, and involve their skills.

Chetty’s research has shown how America is full of lost Einsteins. What are you doing to make sure your organisation does not follow this trend?