Innovation is going off script

Creativity is “just” connecting things.

Yes, I’ll admit I still struggle to define what I do. My definition will usually vary based on the person asking, context, time of day, mood, and a bunch of unrelated factors I’m either aware of (consciously) or not (subconsciously). So from time to time, I’ll experiment with a new definition, put that in front of people, and gauge their response. One of my favorite experiments is to answer the “What do you do?” question with “I do Design Thinking. I’m a Design Thinker.” Mmm…Silence. Confused look. Then the response “What’s Design Thinking?”

Good question. What is Design Thinking?…besides a really confusing term for something quite simple. Tim Brown, President and CEO of IDEO, says:

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

Whether Design Thinking makes more sense now that you’ve read this is not the point. The point is the approach itself. Specifically, our need to put X (in this case, innovation) in a box and say “Hi look, here’s a script you can follow to get or do X.” GV has recently been aggressively pushing its own design-based methodology for innovation called Design Sprints which is the geeky child of Design Thinking and Lean Startup — basically, the same methodology but only faster. SIT or Systematic Inventive Thinking is another approach to thinking and doing innovation that comes with its own set of rules and guidelines. Everywhere I look there seems to be a person or a company trying to sell a box for innovation — step in on one side of the box and emerge victoriously on the other side with innovation galore.

I get it, innovation is a business — companies must innovate not only to survive but also to thrive, and they need something packaged in a box for accounting to approve the budget. But things start to get a little fuzzy (and dangerous) when the box is presented to the end user (typically through a hands-on workshop) as if it is the only way to arrive at the end result. Pretty soon the emphasis shifts from acquiring just another way of looking at a problem to what step am I on or what step should I be on.

The problem is our focus. We need be teaching people how to be more creative as opposed to innovative. Innovation is the end result and an afterthought, it’s never the goal. Teach people to be creative, nurture their creative confidence, and you won’t have to worry about innovation. But when you give someone with low creative confidence a box and say “Here, use this to be innovative”, they’ll hold on to that sucker as if their life depended on it. They don’t have enough creative confidence to take apart the box, rearrange the pieces (perhaps replace some of the pieces with pieces from another box), and apply the new box to the issue at hand.

I don’t believe in innovation — it’s a product (not a process), a job title (not a mindset), an afterthought (not a goal). I believe in human creativity. If you invest resources in defining what creativity means to you and work at increasing creative confidence, then you won’t have to worry about innovation. There are countless resources about creativity (which of course you should read if you’re passionate about the topic), but I want to share one of my own personal observation about creativity.

Psychologist and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman wrote a wonderful book called Thinking, Fast and Slow. The book’s central thesis is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: “System 1” is fast, instinctive and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Mr. Kahneman may not have intended to, but in delineating the two systems that govern the way we think, he also discovered the “secret” to creativity. Creativity is the ability to control (manipulate, if you will) the way we think (System 1 or System 2) about the world around us. System 1 is divergent capable of rapidly connecting discrete ideas for System 2 to converge on and turn into a meaningful whole. Creativity, or more specifically, creative confidence, is the ability to dial in these systems so that you can see things others can’t.