4 Principles for the Innovative
Suppose we really knew where new and novel ideas come from — some powerful tool to create ideas. Imagine being able to deterministically engineer innovation into existence.
With the switch of a button…poof! In all walks of life we would all instantly become more creative, even those among us who are quick to write themselves off as ‘just not that creative’.
Entrepreneurs and managers would simply use this fool-proof framework for radical innovations and instantly tame the disruptive threats of the innovator’s dilemma. If innovations were to become entirely predictable, even the so-called innovation paradox — that of an essential tension between innovation costs vs the costs of directing them into market applications — would cease to matter. Innovations would become routine, everyday occurrences and human flourishing would accelerate beyond comprehension.
Such a magic tool does not (yet) exist. But is it possible to learn to become creative and innovative? From years of reading the literature on this topic I believe that the answer is a resounding yes. While the certitude of a switch may not be possible, odds can be improved significantly more than we might imagine.
1. The Most Basic Question
However, to make progress towards this goal we should begin by asking a more fundamental question: Where do ideas come from?
Is it steady hard work, rare genius, luck and circumstance, or is it that great ideas come from a secret sauce that combines these and other factors?
To start with, the unit of analysis we work with — the individual — is almost always wrong. Our mental model tends to be based on some vast amorphous cloud of incredible ideas that is accessible to individuals. Occasionally innovations occur as we crystalize new ideas from that cloud, be it through individual or collaborative effort; by study and research; through simulation and experience, or through mentorship and guidance. But our thinking on innovation and creativity is grounded in an essential focus on individual minds producing exemplary thoughts.
The alternative is to remove ego from the enterprise and realize that the unit of analysis for innovation is actually an idea. As tautological as it may sound, the truth is that to understand the process of creativity and innovation ideas are the place to start not individuals.
This is hard to do. So eager are we to credit an innovation to an individual or group that detaching the two feels awkward. We yearn to learn who the discoverer of that brilliant thingamajig is, what she looked like and what sort of life she led. How was it her who got there? But the fact is that she does not matter. Certainly knowing who on earth Satoshi Nakamoto is tomorrow will not suddenly help you understand Bitcoin any more than you do today.
A great idea is just a significant waypoint along the stream of ideas that precede it. Its significance mattered to us, remember, not to the ideas that came before it or will surely come after. These streams are sometimes as forceful, vivid and compelling as a raging river and at other times barely an anemic brook.
If this gives you the impression of semantic gameplay, I really do sympathize. After all, you can then ask: Fine, is there a useful model to understand where those “streams of ideas” come from and how some ideas lend themselves to having real, practical value?
Before we answer that, first, it should be obvious that the most useful approach to innovation cannot conveniently fall within the four walls of any academic theory. Not economics. Not systems theory. Not management theory. Not even psychology. Streams of ideas aren’t confined by the walls of departments at universities.
Innovation is, by definition, transdisciplinary. In fact:
1. Creative innovations usually arise from being fiercely anti-disciplinary.
By being anti-disciplinary you permit yourself an enormously under-appreciated freedom: You let yourself be led by the force of the flow of ideas. Think of freely swapping between disciplines in making progress in your work like navigating a stream of ideas using the best-suited boat.
Remember, the prize is the innovation and not your ability to get there using one or even the fewest disciplines of knowledge. For that sort of thing there is academia.
If you grant this first point, the second follows. It is this:
2. The best way to think about the process of innovation is to track the evolution of an idea.
Steinbeck had this to say about writing creatively: “If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule — a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.”
This makes little sense if you think of individuals as the unit of analysis for innovation. True, as a writer, you are thinking about your reader. But this reader is an abstract construct. A placeholder.
A placeholder of what? Remember that stream of ideas?
Everyone travels a certain distance along that stream of ideas from where it emanated. Creative ideas are intrinsically appealing because they presage what lies farther up that stream. Innovative ideas appeal because they increase the salience of that stream to others.
A stream of ideas may flow in one direction, but you often make significant progress by looking back. By thinking about how the precedents of an idea evolved you permit yourself the ability to take that next step naturally. You’ll examine the constraints and hazards; the interactions and catalysts; and the supports and reinforcers that your idea experienced. And you’ll be ready to move forward. Especially, if you are also anti-disciplinary in your outlook.
2. Fuzzy Hierarchies for Ideas
In our book, Creativity and Innovation, these were exactly the sorts of questions that my co-author and I set out to tackle.
We observed that an idea can be seen as belonging to a fuzzy set, which, in contrast to a regular set (say, a set of a dozen spoons depicted in a Venn diagram as a circle with a vivid boundary), is a set that is best imagined as a smudge — fuzzier external bounds and an increasingly clearer interior.
Such a set admits members only probabilistically. So a fuzzy set of, say, ‘eating implements’ may have spoons and forks as relatively crisp members at its center, with a probability very close to 1. But fingers could belong to it as well, with a probability of, say, 0.6, cocktail picks at 0.4 and even improvised spoons made out of visiting cards at 0.05.
The point of adopting this viewpoint is that we are then impelled to give deliberate attention to the usefulness of the label of any given fuzzy set of ideas. Clarifying the intention of a fuzzy-set label immediately focuses your attention on the key ideas that permit an object greater relevance within it.
Innovations result from successively clarifying the intentions we have in mind for the labels we give a fuzzy set of ideas. The intention of
eating implements can be clarified to
implements for hot solid foods and then to
implements for hot solid foods that are wet. Note that fingers become weaker members of the second fuzzy set and very weak members of the last one. Forks, one the other hand, gain relevance in the second and lose almost all relevance for the third.
Sometimes these intentions can expand through clarifications and at other times they might contract.
implements for wet foods that are hot or cold clearly permits more implements, including fingers, and caters to a larger audience. Likewise,
implements for eating hot foods that are safe for young children may well have added a third tine to forks in the story of its evolution and generated experiments with forks made of plastic or silicone.
3. A great deal of innovation and creativity resides in the process of how the intentions of idea-labels can be progressively clarified.
And, because fuzzy sets can be linked together from this process of successive clarifications, what we get is a hierarchy of fuzzy sets.
While it may seem tangential to the immediate and usually far narrower focus of being innovative, it is an interesting thought experiment for the innovator or group of innovators to consider what can be said about the hierarchy of fuzzy sets for the novel idea they wish to innovate.
What are the idea’s essential origins and what is the anti-disciplinary nature of the hierarchy of fuzzy sets of ideas to which it belongs? Such a piste of enquiry forces an acknowledgement of the variety of perspectives that the idea might be amenable to and in what directions it might evolve. What is more is that this approach permits the innovator to find the appropriate levels along the hierarchy that are more malleable to creative ideation.
3. Ideas from the Stone Age
As a key case study in the book, we explored the interesting hierarchy of fuzzy sets for the ideas inherent in a range of bat and ball sports. Related to that exploration was a trivia question that helped us set the stage:
Which industry, in the course of human history, holds claim to being the oldest?
The answer, perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, is that of stone toolmaking. The contest isn’t even close. Stone toolmaking is well clear of the rest of the field by millions of years.
I suppose the question could equally have been what the most enduring technology is and the answer then would have been lithic technology, since it deals with the range of techniques that are at the heart of stone toolmaking.
You may wonder what we can possibly learn about ideas — about creativity and innovation — by looking at an extinct industry. What useful insights and trenchant lessons can we draw from such trivia now?
While it may seem a little far-fetched to be harking back to our Paleolithic hominid ancestors for inspiration, I am actually inclined to think that the thought experiment has some enticing possibilities for insight. It is, after all, the First Case Study chronologically. While I present it more fully in the next section, for now consider three reasons for its relevance.
First, the example provides us with a tabula rasa in thinking about how innovations arise. Developments in lithic technology came at an excruciatingly gradual pace, but also led to evolutionary leaps of extraordinary importance to humans.
Imagine an initial environment that was as uncomplicated as can be, without the superposing effects of a host of other competing technologies and associated ideas. Quite literally, there was no other game in town. A stupefyingly ‘idea-poor environment’ if there ever was one.
The benefit of this mise en scène is that it permits us to engage in a quasi experiment where we can think about the evolution of an idea in a simplified broader context: one where survival was the prime and proximate objective. Not of a promising startup, but, in a very real sense, of the individual!
Second, it suggests how ideas inspire collaboration. Ideas have an uneasy relationship with collaboration. For every study showing how collaboration is beneficial to idea generation (leave alone implementation!) there is another that cautions us on how collaboration can serve to constrict the process of idea generation or even thwart the incentives to contribute.
With stone toolmaking, however, collaboration seems to have evolved organically and with very interesting consequences and side-effects.
For the longest stretch of time, the stone toolmaking industry displayed no sign of collaborative efforts, and then, quite suddenly, it seems to have made it the norm.
The reasons for this transformation are numerous, from a paleoanthropological standpoint (ranging from brain size to geography, and much else), but, from the perspective of innovation theory, the rationale for collaboration is simple, interesting and genuinely instructive: variation of contexts are key to inspiring innovations.
Finally, stone toolmaking shows how ideas endure well past the context of their applications. We tend to see ideas as directly embodied in the range of products or services that they inspire. This is a mental model that is hard to rid oneself of because it tends to make the significance of an idea ‘real’. Again, remember, the idea is the unit of analysis, not the individual, nor even tangible object.
Theories, leave alone products, change and die off at rates that are only loosely correlated with the underlying ideas that inspired them. The extinction of an idea, as opposed to a product, can be usefully seen as being probabilistic rather than definitive, based on aspects that are related less to the products that employed them in the past and more to a broader set of more fundamental ideas that they are related to.
A cherished possession of every serious cook remains a stone mortar and pestle, and I like to imagine that it carries the same ideas that our hominin ancestor employed millions of years ago when he fashioned a stone tool for himself in the Olduwan.
4. Ideas endure over time within the hierarchies that they belong to. They morph with different labels, but they seldom extinguish without a trace.
And those, in a somewhat large nutshell, are the 4 basic tenets for innovation.
Putting it together then:
Commit to thinking anti-disciplinarily about your ideas (1) and you will naturally think of the many labels of fuzzy sets and hierarchies to which they could belong and how the intentions of those labels might then be clarified to yield new insights (3). Think about your innovations as the natural evolution of a stream of ideas (2), feeling free to draw inspiration from its antecedents, both those that are near relatives in the hierarchy as well as those that are most distant (4).
And now for that (optional) case study.
4. The First Case Study: Paleo-Innovation
In the Lower Paleolithic era, more than three million years ago, our earliest hominin ancestors, among them Homo habilis, began the oldest industry. It was not a half-hearted foray either, because it soon became a widespread obsession, often requiring the raw stones to be transported considerable distances. The technology of the Olduwan industry was basic, involving little more than knocking off flakes from a stone using a larger hammerstone — a process called lithic reduction.
The consensus among paleoanthropologists is that these tools weren’t used for hunting, but for scavenging, protection, cutting and pounding fibrous roots. One implement, several uses! Thus began the process of thinking in fuzzy sets. Can you blame these guys for having made these tools in such profusion?
There are scant signs to suggest that the industry was collaborative in nature. It appears to have been largely an individual pursuit, born directly from the most basic of preoccupations— an imperative to survive.
Homo habilis handed down this industry — and the stream of ideas it embodied — to Homo ergaster and Homo erectus, who developed it into the Acheulean industry. This was a truly transformative innovation if there’s ever been one. The stone tools were now shaped more deliberately — with forethought. They were bifacial, pear-shaped and with deliberate sharp edges that were used as handaxes and cleavers. While there is some debate over whether these tools were used widely for hunting, there is no doubt that they indicate that their makers thought differently than their ancestors had about their craft.
It has been argued that Acheulean tools indicate the advent of a deliberate ‘industrial process’. There is a significant difference between repeatedly making the same tool and thinking about what sort of tool could perform the same functions.
Moreover, there are indications that their makers began the development of a ‘social brain’ of which we are the fortunate beneficiaries; not only did their brains signal that they were capable of more purposive cognitive functioning, but also that it enabled social organization that was conducive to the development of rudimentary channels for intergenerational learning. Streams of ideas were enabled and became an obsession. As other technologies developed, streams intermingled and permitted the creation of hierarchies of fuzzy sets.
What were these other technologies?
Experimental evidence suggests that the stages involved in Acheulean stone toolmaking indicate activity in the neural circuits of the brain that are associated with coordination between the visual and motor processes and in the development of language. While this is contested, what we do know with more certainty is that art and aesthetics made its first appearance midway during the course of the Acheulean industry.
The Acheulean industry lasted significantly longer than the Olduwan industry, so it holds the true record for the longest-running industry in the story of human evolution. The Acheulean industry gave way to the Mousterian industry only about 150,000 years ago, and was based on the technology of the Levallois technique. The technique involves flaking of pieces from all sides of a larger stone and then extracting a single piece from the center of this stone as a tool that has pre-finished, sharpened edges. It created very effective projectile points and was used by Neanderthals and Homo sapiens extensively in hunting.
Stone tools that were made using the Levallois technique indicate a much greater emphasis on the desirability of the finished product than the previous lithic technologies had. These were aspirational objects — tools that were born from a design process, informed by collaborative thinking.
Our book took this foray into the distant past to trace the hierarchy of fuzzy idea sets that may have begun in the Paleolithic but remain relevant to the foundational ideas of several sports today. Writing the book gave me an appreciation for the unity — the pervasive connectedness — of ideas that we take for granted. Thinking about a hierarchy of ideas, emerging from a long if not infinite series of increasingly clarified fuzzy sets, unfurled that prospect of wonder about ideas that we often fail to acknowledge.
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Creativity and Innovation: A New Theory of Ideas, Prateek Goorha & Jason Potts, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019