(Photo: Dale LaFollette/Flickr)

How do you Define & Solve Innovation?

Listening to all the talk about innovation makes me feel like Hamlet listening to his mother insist, “The Lady doth protest too much.” Numerous products promise to deliver it, unalike companies claim to embody it and competing politicians guarantee to take us to it. We have a ubiquity of expressions, but an uncertainty over meanings.

The entrepreneur James Dyson cleaved through this verbal thicket with an elegant equation: “creativity + iterative development = innovation.” However this raises an additional question — how exactly do we understand and apply innovation’s constituent variables of creativity and iterative development?

Creativity is commonly associated with a flash of insight, such as Archimedes stepping into a bath to discover water displacement or Isaac Newton uncovering gravity thanks to a strategically falling apple. Unfortunately, these delightful stories are the historical equivalents of the “five-second rule” popularly attached to dropped food: false and even dangerously misleading.

In reality, “aha!” moments of creative insight take considerable effort, without which the ideas we generate will likely remain quite conventional. For instance, when psychologists David Palermo and James Jenkins undertook extensive research into word associations in the 1960s, they found the vast majority of people associated “blue” and “green” with the utterly banal “sky” and “grass.” Similarly, while we might leave a brainstorming session energized by a multitude of ideas, they likely are neither original nor useful. Abraham Heschel wisely observed we have “royal power and plebeian ideals.” So too, our hefty creative abilities lie buried underneath the relentless demands of getting-our-work-done.

We can cultivate and focus our creativity by:

  • Problem finding — Before jumping to solve a problem we must first make sure we have found the right one. As Einstein recognized, “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution… to regard old problems from a new angle, requires imagination and marks real advance in science.” Tip: restate your problem three times using different constraints (e.g. deadlines and specific customer segments).
  • Combinatorial play — Asking people to attend a meeting and “be creative” is an outstanding means to achieve the exact opposite. Contrary to our obsession with intellectual property and others stealing “our” ideas, creativity demands combining preexisting elements, often the more divergent the better. Before your next brainstorming session, have your team complete creativity scholar William Duggan’s “Insight Matrix” that helps generate ideas by organizing a problem into its elements and successful precedents.
  • Positive Mindsets — Creativity can seem like a murky concept, but on this the science is clear: a good mood increases creativity. In fact, there is some evidence that simply believing yourself to be more creative will actually make you more creative. That is reason enough to incorporate improv exercises into your next ideation session, such as the undeniably uplifting and appropriately titled “Your Awesome” game from Dana Mitroff Silvers.

Iterative development provides the framework to transform these fresh and creative ideas into implemented innovations. It is the process of taking steps towards a final output, where at each one you test your idea with the relevant audience, whether potential customers, colleagues, or other stakeholders.

However, these steps are far from a straight upward ascension. It is as if you were looking at a staircase that had been warped by a funhouse hall of mirrors; forming a path that is uneven, unpredictable and can stretch in unexpected directions. The rub is identifying the smallest step that can be taken at each level so you don’t tumble off, otherwise known in tech jargon as creating a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Whereas the typical focus for an organization is on executing and scaling, iterative development emphasizes continual searching and learning. Especially difficult is not allowing the inevitable setbacks from upending the entire project; recognizing that, as Winston Churchill noted, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Startups exemplify this process and an insightful place to start is Steve Blank and Bob Dorf’s The Startup Owner’s Manual.

There is a wonderful Yiddish proverb — that sounds even better in the rhyming original — “man plans, god laughs.” Likewise, innovation is not as straightforward as starting with creativity and then progressing onto iterative development. Innovation requires a constant interplay between the two, so a more accurate twist of James Dyson’s equation would be: “iterative development^creativity = innovation.” Performing this calculation more regularly will not only help our efforts at innovation, but also in discerning whether all those repeating this word really add up.


Originally published at observer.com on August 18, 2015.

(Sean Baker, Design Strategist — GIANT Innovation)