Harnessing the Innovation Paradox

Steve Crandall and I took the train to Rochester last week.  NBC was so excited by the idea of a physicist and an anthropologist investigating the universe by train, they optioned the concept without ado.  They kept using phrases like "high concept" and "Lorre-esque" but I don’t think we said one funny thing the entire trip.  I guess that’s what writers are for.

Steve and I were off to Rochester to join Pip Coburn and Dave Bujnowski for a brain storm. As Steve and I made our way from Penn Station northward, the topics of innovation and idea generation were very much on our minds.  (Yes, and come to think of it, our preoccupation may also have had something to do with the fact that we were travelling on rolling stock that hasn’t been updated for several decades in an industry that continues to use the term "rolling stock.")  

Steve had interesting things to say about the role of serendipity at Bell Labs, a place he worked for some 20 years.  People applied themselves to Lab problems around the clock, but sometimes, and strangely, it was when they went to lunch that some of the best progress was made.  

The creative world is familiar with this paradox.  For some reason, it is when we are free to stop thinking about the problem that we sometimes manage our best work on the problem. And it is especially when we are free to think about something unrelated to our problem that our problem stops being a problem.  

This is another way of saying that we are terrible at problem solving.  We are those little wind up toys spinning our wheels and giving off that horrible, metallic, wind-down sound.  

What does lunch do?  It gives the world a chance to supply it’s "metaphoric materials." Cause that’s what’s happening, isn’t it?  We are working on a problem to do with logistical systems and someone starts talking about the organization of ganglia in the brain and we go, "But of course.  That will do, nicely.  Thank you."

I blame the Dewey Decimal system.  (And frankly it’s done so much harm in the world, I am pretty sure no one is going to mind me adding one more accusation.)   The DDS clusters like minded things together.  And that’s what we always do when trying to solve a problem.  We cluster the data, theories, methods, colleagues we think we’ll need when in fact we should be invited serendipity into our lives to give us the chance for those metaphoric materials.

This leaves us with a problem.  To harness the innovation paradox, we need ideas we can’t possibly guess we need.  We must canvass concepts that are entirely unrelated to our present problem set.  We need to find away to get away from the problem the hand and to give our deeper powers of pattern recognition a chance to work.  

In sum, we have to go somewhere, and we have no clue where.  We have to engage new ideas, but we have no clue which.

Every lunch table, especially when staffed with smart, interesting people, can serve to help us harness the Innovation paradox.  But surely, we can do a little better than this.  Surely, there is some way of narrowing the range of our stimuli in order to increase the chances of "contact."  

Your thoughts, please.

12 thoughts on “Harnessing the Innovation Paradox

  1. Jörgen

    Hope you had fun up in Rochester 🙂 And I don’t just mean that in the literal sense. I think that ‘fun’ and ‘play’ are key ingredients if you want to harness the innovation paradox. It’s in finding adjacent problems to the one that you are trying to solve that creates an intuitive leap and makes you come up with something new. Creativity plays an important role here, not as an act of God, but as a skill that can be learned. One other thing comes to mind in trying to tackle this problem, and that is improv. Fun, play and creativity play an important role in improv and isn’t it exactly what the aim of improv is, to have a few ingredients and then come up with a creatively new way of looking at it?

  2. Clay Forsberg

    Creativity is really just having a group of synaptic connections connect that haven’t connected before.

    The easiest way to accomplish this is ‘change things up’ – break up your routine. In your case you took the train. We are all creatures of habit. These habits are our way of dealing with the uncertainty of the future. By with the habits come the proverbial “stifling wet blanket.”

    Instead of ordering the same thing at a restaurant, order something you’ve never had before. Or better yet, go to a different restaurant. Listen to you kids’ music – I mean really listen to it. You’ll be surprise at the upbeat empowerment message.

    Talk to people you’ve never talked to … like a homeless person. Ask his opinion on something your struggling with. The perspective you get may be that catalyst that breaks you through. Live in your own “internal renaissance” by becoming your personal Medici family with influences from everywhere.

    Change is hard … and for some painful. But it’s change and experiences we get from it that make up “the Road to our Perfect World.”

  3. steve

    Grant is a lot of fun to be with – lots of creative thought there.

    I agree with Jörgen – it certainly is a skill that can be learned. Fortunately I grew up with a field that valued and cultivated it. My favorite Feynman quote is appropriate (insert whatever your passion is)

    “Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

    When you are in this frame of mind, much is possible.

  4. Gregg Fraley

    I’ve been thinking about this for years. You are quite right, we can do better than simply go to lunch in order to make new connections. You can’t analyze your way to a great idea can you?

    Synectics improved on Osborn-style brainstorming by going down the path of using provocation questions in order to get out of a thinking rut. It was a great start. The idea is to surprise the mind. It really needed to go further.

    Unfortunately, brainstorming/idea generation designs aren’t that innovative; not much has been done to change this since 1960. Most organizations are still stuck in the flip chart/post-it/white board phase, and nothing Wrong with that, but it usually only serves as a starting point. Great ideas, typically, come after. They come at lunch or some other time when the brain has incubated the problem and made new connections. Then the ideas pop up when you’ve left it a window to suggest something to you. Like in the shower…at lunch…or out for a walk.

    “New wave” idea generation designs, such as FuseTrail, that KILN is developing, take a tool from your box Grant. The process starts with objects that are culturally meaningful and provocative, but not necessarily related directly to the Challenge du Jour. These carefully selected objects are used with a more holistic, kinesthetic, and “over time” process. It’s more than words on paper, it involves experiences, visuals, and interaction with the objects and other team members. The process ends with story-based writing exercises to develop the concepts you’d present to management.

    It’s a bit like show-and-tell meets improvisational comedy at a dance club (I think of that catch phrase I learned at Second City improv “discover, heighten, explore”).

    Like any process having to do with the mystery of the mind and coming up with new ideas, it’s not foolproof, but at the very least, it gives the mind more of the right kind of stimuli, so, you increase the odds.

    And it’s fun!

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  10. Grant Post author

    posted on behalf of Ethan Decker

    There’s been some great research on where people get new ideas (such as http://www.facebook.com/l/28ad0MQ4sASRBJ3CCk3-VukLayg;www.magazine.utoronto.ca/cover-story/michael-georges-where-do-great-ideas-come-from-pattern-recognition/).

    Amazingly, much of it corroborates what James Webb Young laid down in 1939 in “A Technique for Producing Ideas”. So there is a system to this idea-generation thing, and it involves both rigorous analysis and subconscious synthesis.

    One way to narrow the field of places to look is to find analogous problems, such as ‘challenger brands’, ‘structures requiring high tensile strength’, ‘visual puns’, etc. Biomimicry, for instance, is when engineers look to nature for solutions to analogous problems: Speedo got ideas for lowering swimsuit drag from copying shark skin.

    And studying analogous systems allows rules and laws to be deduced (such as the general laws governing all the cool things in http://www.facebook.com/l/28ad0R6L0V-3sYMvoMDnq3wjiuw;kottke.org/10/12/mathematical-doodling). Such rules and laws can become playbooks for solving problems.

    Sadly, creative professions tend to be horrible at using such frameworks or playbooks, especially compared to engineers and scientist. Have you ever heard a creative director at an ad agency say, “Which human archetype should we use?”, or “which narrative structure fits this story?”

    Even so, it’s hard to know which systems will be analogous, or which playbook to use. Thus a lively lunch table is probably still important. And fun.

  11. steve

    The old Bell Labs was very multidisciplinary and cleverness rather than rank was a virtue for many. The Murray Hill facility was a rabbit’s warren of passages that caused people to run into people they hadn’t seen in a long time. Ideas were a raw material and there were fantastic resources to make the jump to the next level – people were encouraged to play with other depts … something that is lacking in many Universities these days.

    Within a day of the cold fusion announcement there were several quick experiments going on to check things out (non-scientists may be surprised to learn scientists are pretty ruthless with new claims – of course the final arbitrator is always nature herself). I was on one of them. We pulled a 36 hour day and it was pretty clear Pons and Fleischmann had done a bad experiment and were wrong.

    Most of the researchers didn’t concern themselves with things like the news as the playground was far too interesting.

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