“Once exotic, serial entrepreneurs are everywhere these days, “ exclaimed Inc. Magazinein a 2005 article titled “They Just Can’t Stop Themselves.” Since then, there’s been a fair amount of academic research on serial entrepreneurs and the possible factors in their success. But what about serial innovators — are they “everywhere” as well, and wherever they are, how did they get there?
Seeking insight into this question, CIMS TMR turned to its newest Industrial Fellow, Carl Sisk, who was widely recognized as a serial innovator during his 10 years at BP. Here’s his story:
Sisk has a B.S. in electrical engineering but has worked in the oil &gas industry for over 31 years as a petroleum engineer and a reservoir engineer. He started with Amoco Production Company and later the Norwegian Government in a wide range of traditional reservoir positions and field operations, and then, from 1999 to 2009 with BP in various R&D and engineering positions. He left BP in April 2009 and now works for a start-up called Ingrain, which basically scans oil and gas formation rock samples and calculates important physical properties and fluid flow characteristics for its clients.
BP’s Innovation Board
At BP, Sisk was dubbed “Upstream BP Innovation Board Serial Innovator Champion,” but he is quick to acknowledge the role of CIMS and CIMS research associate Stephen K. Markham. “Dr. Markham came to BP around 10 years ago and set up its Innovation Board. This was the platform that allowed me to become a serial innovator.”
BP’s upstream technology group established the Innovation Board in 2000 in order to support ideas considered too innovative for regular R&D or development and move them into the marketplace ( see CIMS TMR, Fall 2006). Sisk explains that the idea was to create an environment where anybody, at any time, could go onto a website and submit an idea.
“If you had an idea, they made it very easy to get it down on a computer, identify what it is, describe it, explain what the impact would be, and how hard it would be to implement. Once you got used to submitting ideas, the whole process (if you had the idea formulated in your head) was literally a 20–25 minute exercise. But the part that was probably the most motivating for me was that they had experts on this Innovation Board who were specialists in your area, who were outstanding individuals in the industry, not just within BP.
“These people would review your ideas and give you feedback relatively quickly. Sometimes, it was a collaborative effort where you’d be thinking of something and they might already have had some ideas in the same area, and so you might modify your idea, or add to it, or head in a completely different direction. But you weren’t left thinking that, A, the company didn’t care, and B, you didn’t have a support system.
“Within the BP research environment at the time, we were working with billable hours, but if you spent 20 hours on some side project, you could get it funded by the Innovation Board. They formally recognized the value of this by giving you time to work on it and not making you feel like it was a diversion from your main job. It was recognized by BP as an important activity.”
VCs for Ideas
Sisk recalls that this was the year 2000 when the dot-com boom was booming, start-ups were rampant and venture capitalists were doing excellent business. “In essence, BP was saying they wanted to be the VC for the ideas of their employees. They were willing to let some ideas bubble-up from the bottom rather than all being top-down strategies .
“I found all of this incredibly motivating: the ease of doing it, the interaction with top industry experts, and the recognition from the company to ‘Go follow through with your actions and some money.’ After I started submitting ideas, got some positive feedback, and saw that ideas were getting implemented and used, one thing led to another and I ended up submitting a large number of ideas.”
Iconoclasts in the Lab
It was for his many idea submissions that Sisk became recognized as a serial innovator at BP, an activity he is continuing in his new job at Ingrain. However, he doesn’t consider himself so unusual or so very different from other technical people and believes that an Innovation Board system would work in any organization with the interest. He then mentions being in the middle of reading Iconoclast:
A neuroscientist reveals how to think differently, by Gregory Berns, M.D. (Harvard Business Press, 2008).“I bring up Berns because I think he does the best job I’ve seen anybody do of talking about the creative people who come up with new ideas in a big organization, or in their own culture. How are they different? How are their brains different? What makes them tick that we can learn from, and how can we be more like them? “
Berns holds that while iconoclasts like Edwin Armstrong, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs may be born, with the right kinds of experience less-gifted people can learn to think more like iconoclasts..
“One of the things that I can relate to in the book,” explains Sisk, “is that these innovators shared a low anxiety, or low fear, of sharing their ideas and of thinking differently. You should not be afraid to come up with something completely different from what everyone else is doing. Say it out loud, or write it down, have your name be associated with it.“Some people would be inhibited and say, ‘I don’t want to to say anything, because I may look stupid. I may reveal my ignorance in a technology field. I may be found out to be not too bright, or something.’ All the people Berns talks about would attest to having very little of that anxiety. It’s okay with them if they’re different, and they don’t have a problem if people don’t agree with them.
“It’s not that they’re trouble-makers, it’s just they don’t worry about being different. It doesn’t bother them. That resonated with me.
“But that’s not necessarily always good. There are times when having a screen, like this Innovation Board, allows you to bounce your ideas off of these industry leaders. In my case it was Warren Winters and Michelle Judson who gave me a lot of feedback that I really enjoyed. I never once worried that they might think I was stupid, or that they might think less of me because I came up with an idea that turned out to be not practical, or not useful in its initial form.”
Captivated by New Ideas
Sisk learned that functional magnetic resonance studies have shown that certain personality types, like Berns’ iconoclasts, get highly excited when they’re working on new ideas and being creative. They display considerable .brain activity, much more than the average person.
“I would describe myself like that,” Sisk says. “I get really excited about new ideas. They captivate me.”
Ask Sisk to name the most recent idea that has excited him and he’ll reply that it leads to Ingrain, where he is working now. “They’ve come up with a revolutionary idea within the oil and gas industry, where instead of drilling and cutting a piece of rock, and then flowing fluid through that rock and measuring it’s properties to describe the rock’s characteristics and they way the oil and gas reservoir will perform long-term, they make a 3-D picture of the rock fabric with all the rock geometry. They segment that mathematically into a physical description of the rock, and then mathematically flow fluids through it and calculate properties of the real rock.
“We can do a lot of very exciting things in that computational environment that you can’t do in a real environment. To me it’s interesting to think, “How does this change what we’re doing? How does it change the way we use this data? That’s very stimulating for me. As are the people I’m working with — Ph.D.s from MIT and Stanford, long-term, 30-year professors. True industry experts in their field.”
The point is, of course, that serial innovators get energized by new ideas. They seek them out. “And look for environments where people will fund my ideas, where there are new things going on, very creative environments where I can work with industry experts,” Sisk replies.
Sisk credits CIMS with helping to create such an environment at BP.”With that environment I discovered things about myself that I didn’t know 10 years ago. I think there’s a lot of good serial innovators out there who just haven’t been put in the right environment to see what kind of creative ideas they could have.”
These hidden serial innovators, Sisk continues, need something like CIMS and the BP Innovation Board to bring them out of hiding, if you will. At the heart, he reflects, is how easy BP made it for people to submit ideas and receive feedback from other creative experts and financial support from the company.
In addition, though,”one of the things that differentiates an iconoclast or a serial innovator that’s successful from somebody who simply has a lot of crazy ideas is that you have to be able to clearly articulate what it is you’re trying to do in a way that the audience you’re trying to sell it to can relate to. You need to be a very good communicator, and you need to be able to relate to your audience. “A Walt Disney and a Steve Jobs are wonderful salesmen. Everybody wants to be hanging out with Walt Disney. Everybody wants to hang out with Steve Jobs. But there are a lot of innovators who, quite frankly, are kind of nerdy and introverted, and don’t get along with people very well. They’re brilliant, and they come up with great ideas, but they can’t relate to the world around them.
“What this neuroscientist, Gregory Berns, has noticed is that the truly great iconoclast has this ability to somehow think differently than the rest of society, but can then turn around and pitch his idea in a way that’s very clear and lucid to the masses. That’s a very unusual person.
“ I don’t think everybody’s a hidden Steve Jobs and that if we just hit them up with an Innovation Board we’ll suddenly have 10 million Steve Jobs. But, if we can get half way there, if we can get 20 percent of the way there, it’s a huge opportunity. I think that’s the point of Berns’ book, that if you can just crack through some of the things that are holding you back, you can go a long way.
“You can’t put the passion in people. You either have that passion or not. You have to have people who have the insight to see the idea, but if you have an organization like the BP Innovation Board that helps them, through coaching, to sell their ideas, they can at least become better communicators and bring out some of their innate talent as serial innovators,” Sisk concludes.
The CIMS Fellows
Sisk is one of the 12 CIMS Industrial and Academic Fellows, who generously share their insights and expertise with others in the CIMS network, including corporate sponsors, researchers and CIMS faculty. You can learn more about these innovation experts at http://cims.ncsu.edu. Carl Sisk may be contacted directly at email@example.com