Skip to content

Why The Biggest Breakthroughs Often Come From The Quiet Geniuses

2018 November 7
by Greg Satell

When you think of breakthrough innovation, someone like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk often comes to mind. Charismatic and often temperamental, people like these seem to have a knack for creating the next big thing and build great businesses on top of them. They change the world in ways that few can.

Yet what often goes unnoticed is that great entrepreneurs build their empires on the discoveries of others. Steve jobs didn’t invent the computer or the mobile phone any more than Jeff Bezos discovered e-commerce or Elon Musk dreamed up electric cars. Those things were created by scientists and engineers that came long before.

In researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I got to know many who truly helped create the future and I found them to be different than most people, but not in a way that you’d expect. While all were smart and hardworking, the most common trait among them was their quiet generosity and that can teach us a lot about how innovation really works.

How Jim Allison Figured it All Out

At least in appearance, Jim Allison is a far cry from how you would normally picture a genius to look like. Often disheveled with a scruffy beard, he kind of mumbles out a slow Texas drawl that belies his amazingly quick mind. Unassuming almost to a fault, when I asked him about his accomplishments he just said, “well, I always did like figuring things out.”

When Jim was finishing up graduate school, scientists had just discovered T-cells and he told me that he was fascinated by how these things could zip around your body and kill things for you, but not actually hurt you. The thing was, nobody had the faintest idea how it all worked. So Jim decided to become an immunologist and devote his life to figuring it all out.

Over the next few decades, he and his colleagues at other labs did indeed do much to figure it out. They found one receptor, called B-7, which acts like an ignition switch that initiates the immune response, another, CD-28, that acts like a gas pedal and revs things up into high gear and a third, called CTLA-4, that puts on the brakes so things don’t spin out of control.

Jim played a part in all of this, but his big breakthrough came from the work of another scientist in his lab, which made him suspect that the problem with cancer wasn’t that our immune system can’t fight it, but that it puts the brakes on too soon. He thought that if he could devise a way to pull those brakes off, we could cure cancer in a new and different way.

As it turned out, Jim was right. Today, cancer immunotherapy has become a major field unto itself and, on October 1st, he won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of it. Yet the truth is that it wasn’t one major breakthrough, but a decades-long process of slowly putting the pieces together that made it all possible.

How Gary Starkweather Went From Blowup To Breakthrough

Gary Starkweather is every bit as quiet and unassuming as Jim Allison. Yet when I talked to him a few years ago, I could still hear the anger in his voice as he told me about an incident that happened almost 50 years before. In the late 60s, Gary had an idea to invent a new kind of printer, but his boss at Xerox was thwarting his efforts.

At the time, Gary was one of the few experts in the emerging field of laser optics, so there weren’t many others who could understand his work, much less how it could be applied to the still obscure field of computers. His boss was, in fact, was so hostile to Gary’s project that he threatened to fire anyone who worked with him on it.

Furious, the normally mild mannered Gary went over his boss’s head. He walked into the Senior Vice President’s office and threatened, “Do you want me to do this for you or for someone else?” For the stuffy, hierarchical culture of Xerox, it was outrageous behavior, but as luck would have it, the stunt paid off. News of Gary’s work made it across the country to the fledgling computer lab that Xerox had recently established in California, the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Gary thrived in the freewheeling, collaborative culture at PARC. The researchers there had developed a graphical technology called bitmapping, but had no way to print the images out until he showed up. His development of the laser printer was not only a breakthrough in its own right, but with the decline of Xerox’s copier business, it actually saved the company.

The Wild Ideas Of Charlie Bennett

Charlie Bennett is one of those unusual minds that amazes everyone he meets. He told me that when he was growing up in the quiet Westchester village of Croton-on-Hudson he was a “geek before geeks were cool.” While the other kids were playing sports and trading baseball cards, what really inspired Charlie was Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA.

So he went to college and majored in biochemistry and then went on to Harvard to do his graduate work, where he served as James Watson’s teaching assistant. Yet it was an elective course he took on the theory of computation that would change his fate. That’s where he first encountered the concept of a Turing Machine and he was amazed how similar it was to DNA.

So Charlie never became a geneticist, but went to work for IBM as a research scientist. It proved to be just the kind of place where a mind like his could run free, discussing wild ideas like quantum cryptography with colleagues around the globe. It was one of those discussions, with Gilles Brassard, that led to his major breakthrough.

What the two discussed was the wildest idea yet. They proposed to transfer information by quantumly entangling photons, something that Einstein had derisively called “spooky action at a distance” and was adamant couldn’t happen. Yet the two put a team together and, in 1993, successfully completed the quantum teleportation experiment.

That, in turn, led Charlie just a few months later to write down his four laws of quantum information, which formed the basis for IBM’s quantum computing program. Today, in his seventies, Charlie is semi-retired, but still goes into the labs at IBM research to quietly discuss wild ideas with the younger scientists, such as the quantum internet that’s just beginning to emerge now.

For Innovation, Generosity Is A Competitive Advantage

My conversations with Jim, Gary, Charlie and many others made an impression on me. They were all giants in their fields (although Jim hadn’t won his Nobel yet) and I was a bit intimidated talking to them. Yet I found them to be some of the kindest, most generous people I ever met. Often, they seemed as interested in me as I was in them.

In fact, the behavior was so consistent that I figured it couldn’t be an accident. So I researched the matter further and found a number of studies that helped explain it. One, at Bell Labs, found that star engineers had a knack for “knowing who knows.”  Another at the design firm IDEO found that great innovators essentially act as “knowledge brokers.“

A third study helps explain why knowledge brokering is so important. Analyzing 17.9 million papers, the researchers found that the most highly cited work tended to be mostly rooted within a traditional field, with just a smidgen of insight taken from some unconventional place. Breakthrough creativity occurs at the nexus of conventionality and novelty.

So as it turns out, generosity is often a competitive advantage for innovators. By actively sharing their ideas, they build up larger networks of people willing to share with them. That makes it that much more likely that they will come across that random piece of information and insight that will help them crack a really tough problem.

So if you want to find a truly great innovator, don’t look for the ones that make the biggest headlines are that are most inspiring on stage. Look for those who spend their time a bit off to the side, sharing ideas, supporting others and quietly pursuing a path that few others are even aware of.

– Greg


This article first appeared on

Image: Wikimedia Commons (By Peter Mosimann – Fondazione Internazionale Balzan)

2 Responses leave one →
  1. José Fortes permalink
    November 8, 2018

    Hi Greg,

    I follow your truly interesting articles, which are usually full of great reflection and insights on the field.

    I enjoyed this article as well, in fact, very much. I will even use it in the classroom of one of the MBAs that I teach to show this great empirical proof of something I try to evangelize consistently during the course: being able to connect dots among diverse fields is what makes the magic happen, you don’t necessarily need to be the ultimate expert in your field, but more of a cross pollinator (“Another at the design firm IDEO found that great innovators essentially act as “knowledge brokers.“”).

    Having said that, there’s somthing that didn’t quite work for me in the article at a fundamental level: the notion that great innovators tend to be generous, open and collaborative.

    After reading the article I believe my intuition was right: the people that you mentioning in the article are not so much innovators as they are inventors.

    If R+D (inventing) is creating new knowledge and Innovation is applying new knowledge to create value (solving problems in the real world via well defined Use Cases), then, these people are all inventors, not Innovators.

    I just wanted to chime in and share my reflection on the subject with you. It’s something I always try to keep clear when I talk to people about Innovation (what it is and what it is not).

    Thanks for your time.

    José Fortes.

  2. November 9, 2018

    I see your point, but I do not recognize the distinction between innovators and inventors, which I feel is arbitrary (to say that Einstein wasn’t innovative defies any conventional understanding of the term).

    Also, one person’s invention is another person’s innovation, so the distinction between the two is highly contextual. For example, you could argue that the microchip was an invention and not an innovation, because it is only a component and not an end product that could impact the world on its own. However, for computer manufacturers, the development microchip was an end product that solved a real world problem (i.e. The tyranny of numbers). You could make the same argument for transistors, computers, particular software and on and on. So I don’t see how making the distinction is at all useful. In my book I define innovation as a “novel solution to an important problem” and I think that all three of these fit the bill.

    However, even using your definition (which I know many others use as well), Gary Starkweather and Jim Allison both engaged in what, by your terms, would be considered innovating. Both applied knowledge, much or all of it discovered by others, to create and improve a product that solved real problems and had immense impacts on the world.


Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS