World-renowned innovator got a boost at Mesa College
The opportunity to gain firsthand insight from a world-renowned innovator is honor enough, but to find out that innovator got his start at Colorado Mesa University (then Mesa College) is downright exciting.
Thomas W. Osborn, a virtual rock star in the world of innovators as featured in a new book from Stanford University Press titled “Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations,” entered Mesa College as a struggling student with attention deficit disorder back in the 1960s.
“The quality of Mesa’s undergraduate education gave me a very good base,” Osborn told me. The encouragement from and “the influence of professors like Drs. Lenc and Putnam and Mr. Perry” helped him build a strong foundation for his scientific interests.
From Mesa, Osborn went to Colorado State University, then on to Oregon State University where he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and studied the chemical evolution of the solar system. He did postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Diego in the laboratory of H.C. Urey, a Nobel laureate, where he worked on technology “that measured cosmic ray-induced nuclear reactions in lunar rock and dated moon rocks.” This was important because it helped scientists to understand the geologic development of the moon’s surface.
Procter & Gamble, with 9,000 scientists and engineers in its employ, hired Osborn to develop a linear accelerator laboratory, but he quickly realized P&G didn’t need one. He said as much and prepared to look for another job. But, surprisingly, he was asked to stay on.
Osborn spent the next 38 years with P&G. He was responsible for more than 150 U.S. patents, multiple technical publications and billions of dollars in revenue each year from products that have improved the lives of billions of consumers around the world. Today he is retired but remains a consultant for the company — in between speaking engagements, of course.
As I listened, it was obvious why the “Serial Innovators” authors chose him as their quintessential model.
Those authors (Abbie Griffin, Raymond Price and Bruce Vojak) describe serial innovators as several types of people rolled into one. They “understand needs and invent, champion, and facilitate projects through the implementation process. And they innovate over and over again.”
The book explains how leaders can get the most from their serial innovators — should they be fortunate to have found them in the first place.
“Everything they do centers on understanding and solving customer problems,” the authors write. “Serial innovators have the potential to solve problems that are profoundly important to customers and to the world.”
But what about Osborn’s attention deficit disorder?
“It increased the level of challenge for me, but it is also one of the reasons I succeeded,” he explained, “because to succeed in school, I had to spend more time studying and work harder. Those characteristics were then easily carried over into my professional career.”
I was reminded of what Albert Einstein said: “It’s not that I’m so smart; I just stay on problems longer.”
Osborn continued, “Patience, passion and a desire to do better, to grow more, to always challenge myself are essential for success in any area of endeavor. It takes just as much time to solve a good problem as a bad problem, so why not spend the time solving good problems?”
Challenging established models, disrupting the status quo, is difficult and often causes real organizational conflict. “It can put you in danger of termination. I don’t know if it’s guts or stupidity that causes one to take the risk,” Osborn said with a laugh. Citing several specific product innovations, he added, “I knew I was right and had to find a way to convince the company that these were important opportunities. Working in R&D for a large corporation has a way of keeping you humble.”
Osborn offers this advice for other budding innovators:
“The key things are patience and passion for what you do,” he replied. “I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about what I’m working on, especially if it’s something that can fundamentally change — immensely — the quality of someone’s life.” He also acknowledged the value of good colleagues, winning support from key managers and a very supportive spouse.
The “Serial Innovators” authors’ summary description of the subject fits Osborn to a T: “They use their hands to fashion the components, their minds to create function and strategy, and their hearts to feed the passion that drives their work forward.”
Did the teachers at Mesa College who spent extra time and offered encouragement to Osborn those many years ago recognize, instinctively, that this student with attention deficit disorder would go on to become one of our nation’s leading serial innovators? Did they sense he would improve the lives of billions of consumers around the world?
I have a hunch, if those teachers were still with us today, they would answer, humbly, like all good teachers, that they were only doing their jobs.
So here’s to all the teachers, investors and corporate directors out there who recognize and encourage the serial innovators among us who are ever striving to make our lives better.