Can you learn to be innovative & creative?

Posted on: July 31, 2014, by :

The management guru, Peter Druker (1909 -2005) said, “Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship. The act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth”.

I wonder how many entrepreneurs practice what Drucker’s had preached. Many think that innovation and creativity are confined to the “creative people”, like those who design your logo. Wrong! You can actually learn to be innovative and creative. I am in fact learning from a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) from the Pennsylvania State University entitled, “Creativity, Innovation and Change” (CIC) at present*. There are a great deal that even an “old dog” and trained scientist like me can pick up. This 8-weeks course is near its completion for this session, but do check it out on Coursera ( to put this course on your watch-list for the next session**.

I particularly like the idea of the “idea journal”, a physical notebook, or the electronic version from your smartphone or tablet that you use to jot down any idea that come to mind. Doing this regularly will help you to build up a good collection. Review and act on some of these ideas periodically and you are on the first step of being innovative and creative.

But having ideas, recording them and executing your ideas are not the surefire way to be successful in your innovative quest. You need to have two further actions: being observant and having the habit of collecting and analysing data from your innovative and creative projects.

My PhD work over two decades ago was on how to multiply narcissus using a non-conventional method (narcissus are bulbs that produce trumpet-like yellow flowers that signify the imminent arrival of Spring). In the era of 1980s plant tissue culture or commonly know as cloning of plants was beginning to be used extensively to clone high potential and high value plants.  After working on the problem for over a year, I was not getting my plants that I cloned  to multiply fast enough. I was stuck.

On one cold Friday night in late 1988, I was working for over 12 hours in the laboratory, doing more work to fine tune my technique to multiply my plants. Fatigue and frustration overcame my mind (later I attributed this to my having inhaled too much 99% alcohol used as antiseptic spray over the long working day). I was very brutal in the way I used the scalpel to cut my plants. I was even more brutal in the way I stuffed the cut plant materials in my test tube with growth medium. Despite feeling tired, my training dictated that I would need to label and keep record of my experiment with full eagerness, even though I had done about 500 test-tubes of plants by then, at about 10 pm.

10 weeks later, while doing my daily routine of inspecting and recording data on my hundreds of test-tubes, something odd caught my eyes. 12 test-tubes were showing 12 to 15 shoots each while the rest were “normal”, pathetically with 2 or 3 shoots. Checking back my records, I found out that the plants in these particular batch of test-tubes were in fact those that received the severe cutting and brutal stuffing in that fateful night. This was in fact the turning point of my research.  I had cracked the the tough nut of low multiplication rate of my plants in tissue culture.  Without the keen and trained eyes, I would not have figured out what caused the substantially higher rate of multiplication of my plants inside these 12 test-tubes. Without a habit of recording data and events, I would not have traced the unexpected results back to my brutal treatment of the plants, which in fact removed the effect of what plant scientists called apical dominance that allowed the severely cut plants to multiply in much larger number. I had a system then to produce massive number of narcissus shoots in test-tubes. However, the end product that was required of my PhD work was a system to produce a massive number of narcisus bulbs which will in turn produce flowers. I was not out of the woods yet.

Being innovative also means that one should look at other people’s idea and see if you can borrow any concept or ideas from them. That is why academics always tell their research students to read around the subject and think out of the box.  In 1989, my supervisors, the late Dr. Barbara M. Harvey, Dr. Christopher Selby and I were having a casual discussion with another scientist who was studying the physiology of potato. We learned that in potato, if you provide high concentration of sugar in your growth medium, you could trick the plants to form potato tubers. By adapting and innovating on this technique, I reached another turning point of my PhD work. I could make my narcissus shoots form bulbs in test-tubes. In fact I had created the protocol not only to produce bulbs from shoots but these bulbs were physiologically matured by my system. I had sliced two to three years off the time of 5 years that normally took young bulbs to flower.

By early 1990, I had enough data to commence write up for my PhD thesis. To ensure that I used my creative and innovative flair only on my thesis, my supervisors “banished” me from my lab. Six months later, I completed my writing.  Subsequently three papers were produced from my thesis and accepted for publication in international journals, two of these are still being cited by other researchers working on bulbs today, 20 years after publication.

Innovation is not magic, it will not bring you success in a puff of smoke. You need to work on it, and there is no short cut. It requires what I learned from CIC, “intelligent fast failure”: getting to experiment with your idea fast, doing the work intelligently and learn from the failure so that you can rework at the problem with a refined execution plan. I had about 15 months of constantly having failures in my PhD studies, killing lots of narcissus plants in the process, but each time, I learned new facts and gathered  new observations. As well opined by Professor Darrell Velegol one of the brilliant professors of CIC, “You want to make failures that are early-small-fast-cheap, as opposed to late-large-slow-expensive”. I built on this knowledge and with a trained but keen sense of observation, recording my data judiciously, I had my “Eureka” moment  twice. Unlike the legend of Archimedes, I was wrapped up in my labcoat each time!

Plantcloner was trained at Queen’s University of Belfast.  He  believes that innovative and creative skills can be learned and there is creative and innovative flair in everyone of us waiting to be unleashed.


This article was initially published in October 26, 2013 edition of Focus Malaysia by Dr. Chow YN under the moniker of “Plantcloner”.

*The author took and completed this course successfully in September 2013.

**CIC has just started again on July 14, 2014. Interested learners may still have time to join in the fun.

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