Early tech often seems like it solves a problem that doesn’t need fixing, but it can and does lead to sweeping change over time. In this Tough Things First podcast, Ray Zinn discusses the nexus between curiosity and innovation and why they are inseparable.
Rob Artigo: I’m Rob Artigo, your guest host for this edition of the Tough Things First Podcast, where I get a chance to talk with Ray Zinn, as noted the longest serving CEO in Silicon Valley. And that’s for good reason, he’s a pro, inventor, and an all around good guy to talk to because he’s got a lot of knowledge. Thanks again, great to be back with you, Ray.
Ray Zinn: Well, thank you, Rob.
Rob Artigo: Well, I was reading a Forbes article recently, it got me thinking about the nexus between curiosity and innovation. And so we’ll get to that in a second. But maybe I could ask you, and we can learn a little bit about you, if there was a time in your life when you realized you had a keen sense of curiosity?
Ray Zinn: What piqued my curiosity is when there was a problem to be solved that wasn’t being solved by a present method, as you would. And so I’d say, “Okay, well, how can I solve this problem?”
Ray Zinn: (Cont.) And so my curiosity came not because I was just sitting around thinking I’m being curious, I saw a problem that needed to be solved, and then I came up with this innovation or this idea of how to solve that problem.
Rob Artigo: The interesting thing to me about curiosity, the idea of innovation, is that the limitations are few if you are curious about this, without applying I guess norms onto it. Like you said, there’s the normal solution for something, and then there’s the range of solutions. And you look at it curiously, curiosity leads you to the direction of thinking to yourself, I wonder if there’s more to this, more space that we can operate in, or a completely different way of looking at this and finding a better solution.
Ray Zinn: Well, that’s the key. The key is identifying or being curious about a solution, is there a better way? For example, the sewing machine singer coming up with this patent on the sewing machine, because he could just see the labor required to sew a dress. He said, “Well, I think we can build this cheaper and faster if we had a machine.” We kind of go back to the podcast, we talked about AI. I mean, AI has been with us, as we said, forever. So looking for solutions as opposed to looking at problems is the key here. So we can say, “Oh boy, I have a problem.” Well, rather than say, “I have a problem.” Just say, “I have a solution, because I’m curious about how to fix it.” A better epoxy, or a better sewing machine, or better whatever widget it is that we can think of that helps do the job better than we currently do it.
All these inventions, every invention out there, came because somebody was curious. Whether it be an Edison, or a Bell, or Ben Franklin, or whoever, we were all curious about something, and we wanted to find a solution for it. So I can remember, I’ll tell you a funny story. Back in the early nineties when we were developing the cell phone, and we were looking at putting a camera in the cell phone. I personally thought that was a waste of time, I thought, [inaudible 00:03:34] dumb? I mean, why would anybody want a camera on their phone? And now we talk about that’s probably the most general way in which pictures are taken, they’re no longer taken with a camera, with a standalone camera, they’re taken with a cell phone. In the beginning I thought it was a dumb idea, but now I personally don’t even use a camera, I mean a standalone camera, I use my cell phone to take my pictures. And so this is just interesting, how sometimes dumb ideas end up being the way we do it.
Rob Artigo: It’s funny the way it progresses, oftentimes the first time you see something, it’s the first generation, second generation. And you look at it, not only early on, the pictures weren’t great, it was kind of clumsy to use, you didn’t get the quality. And you thought, you know what? Why even have this in here if the product that it’s delivering is going to be so bad? Who knew optics and the cameras would get so good? I look at my phone right now, it has three camera lenses on it.
Ray Zinn: I know, it’s amazing. Again, I originally thought that it was a dumb idea, but now I don’t even have a camera, I mean a physical standalone camera. If I want to take a picture, I just grab my phone and snap it. So here’s an example of where I thought putting a picture taking device in a cell phone I thought was a dumb idea, but it ended up being… I mean, I don’t know of a cell phone that doesn’t have a camera in it, unless it’s one of those sheepy ones that you use just for… What do they call it? I forgot the name of the kind of phone it is. But whether you just have a burner phone or something like that.
But most cell phones have cameras. And now because that becomes now the way we take pictures, we’ve had to improve the technology so that the quality of the picture didn’t make us revert back to a standalone camera. I’m not a big picture taker, honestly, myself. And so maybe that’s why I didn’t think it was a good idea, because I wasn’t big about taking pictures. But now that I have my phone with my camera on it, I take pictures all the time. Whereas before, I didn’t consider myself a picture taker.
Rob Artigo: Yeah. Think about the fact that during these early days of cell phones, when they were just coming up with that idea, and even texting, that there were big advancements in the pager systems. So you had a text that the person sending you the text would type it in on a keyboard, on a computer, and then they would send it out to you and your beeper would go off, and you’d look at it, and it would scroll a message across the beeper. And then somebody was like, “Hey, why isn’t this just in a phone?”
Ray Zinn: Exactly.
Rob Artigo: And then it wiped out the beeper industry because you had that.
Ray Zinn: Yeah, there’s another example of AI. You said, “Why do this on a beeper? I already got a cell phone I got to carry my pocket. Why have a beeper?” And so we got rid of the beeper industry. I mean, there’s been so many industries that have gone away in the last 50 years that have been replaced by technology, that it’s just unbelievable. But the subject today, or the topic today is on innovation, having curiosity. But again, curiosity came by, why do we have a pager that lists one line going across it when I can just use my cell phone? So that’s curiosity.
Rob Artigo: Yeah. And then how many times have we thought to ourselves when you see something, you go, “Why didn’t I think of that? It’s so simple.” But it takes a person who’s curious, and willing to run down the details, and figure out is that possible? And the next thing you know you have somebody who goes, “Here’s the widget.” And you go, “Wow, that widget’s amazing. I can’t believe that it hadn’t already been thought of.”
Ray Zinn: But there’s a negative. There’s a negative, curiosity killed the cat, remember that one? But we want curiosity, we don’t want to make it negative like it was. Years ago we said, “Curiosity killed the cat.” We want you to be curious, we want you to seek solutions. We don’t want you to seek problems, we want you to seek solutions, be curious, “Why do we have to do it this way? Why can’t we do it this other way?” And so curiosity spurs in innovation.
Rob Artigo: Well, lastly, this Forbes article that I mentioned in the opening there, it suggested that building those skills in the workplace, and really doing it company-wide by emphasizing questions over answers and create space for exploration, that’s the way to go about it. So do you agree, and are there other ways that we can build curiosity and innovation among our teams in our workspace?
Ray Zinn: Sure, anytime we can question, why do we have to do it this way or that way, as opposed just to give answers. We want people to question, why do we have to do it a certain way?
Rob Artigo: And finally, does remote work affect that? All of this stuff, creativity.
Ray Zinn: I’m not sure, I’m not sure if it does. I mean, there’s certain pros and cons to working remotely, we don’t get the synergism, we don’t get the team effect, because just doing it on Zoom or some other over the air type of communication really doesn’t bring the advantage of team building. So I think that we lose a team building attribute of innovation, as you would, because of the fact that we’re doing a remote working.
Rob Artigo: So I guess the answer is, it depends really, it depends. Well, Ray, as always, the listeners can reach out to you with their questions at Toughthingsfirst.com. I like to call it continuing their education. And of course, continuing this conversation with all the podcasts, blogs, and links to information about Ray’s books, Tough Things First, and the Zen of Zinn 1, 2, and 3. Great conversation, Ray.
Ray Zinn: Thanks, Rob.