That was exactly the situation with the young Alexander Graham Bell. His boss wanted him to focus on improving the telegraph, but in 1875, Bell grew obsessed with ideas for the telephone.
Here are some practices—now widely accepted in theory but still rare in practice—you can adopt to encourage innovation:
- Notice inventiveness. One day, Bell spotted a dead gull while walking along the beach. While his companion tried to stay upwind of the thing, Bell spread it out on the sand, measured it, estimated its weight, examined its musculature and then announced that somebody would build a flying machine soon.
- Loosen the chain of command. When Bell discovered a way to send multiple telegraphs over a line instead of just one, he rushed to work on the idea with his assistant rather than consulting his boss first.
- Push innovators. Bell’s backers wanted him to go to Washington (at his own expense) and apply for a patent on his telegraph ideas. Bell worried about missing work, and that his ideas didn’t measure up, but he went. While there, he decided to stay an extra day and meet Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian Institution’s first secretary and a pioneer in electromagnetism.
Henry had been the first scientist to convert magnetism into electricity, but Michael Faraday had published the results first and won credit. Now, when the young Bell showed up and fretted that he didn’t have enough knowledge about electricity to make his inventions pay off, Henry barked, “Get it!”
- Encourage them. The eminent scientist also did Bell and the world a big favor. Bell felt so encouraged by the old man’s interest in his work on the telegraph that he decided to float his crazy idea for telephones. Henry, even more impressed, told Bell it was “the germ of a great invention” and advised him to keep at it.
—Adapted from Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention, Charlotte Gray, Arcade Publishing.