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Paths to Innovation: Recreation, Collaboration, Imitation, Frustration, and Miscalculation

May 4, 2012


Anyone who has ever studied creativity understands that ideas can be generated in any number of ways. Hence, there is not a single path to creativity, invention, and innovation there are many. Barbara Haislip, for example, recommends that you relax. “Take a break,” she writes. “It’ll be good for business. Getting away from work can recharge your batteries. But it can also bring insights and inspiration.” [“Relax. Have Fun. Get Inspired.Wall Street Journal, 21 August 2011] Haislip’s advice is on the mark if you are looking for what Jonah Lehrer, author of the book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, calls “a classic moment of insight.” You might also call it an “Ah ha” or “Eureka” moment. Lehrer insists that moments of insight come when our minds are not actively thinking about a problem at hand. For more on Lehrer’s book, read my post entitled Becoming More Creative. Haislip provides a good example of how relaxation or recreation can stimulate innovation. She reports:

“Robert Jensen of Montvale, N.J., … was looking to start a venture and ‘needed time to clear my head,’ he says. ‘Coincidentally, an annual ski trip with a number of my friends was coming up. I decided that I would put everything aside and go on this trip and just relax and enjoy.’ But his mind kept returning to an idea that had fizzled. Years ago, he had patented a pipe component that would make it cheaper and easier to install geothermal heat pumps—an eco-friendly technology that uses the temperature of the ground to heat and cool buildings. But the idea didn’t go anywhere. Then, while sitting on a chairlift in Aspen, ‘I noticed the cable that was transporting the line of chairs up the mountain,’ he says. ‘The steel cable consisted of a number of smaller cables wound around each other to look almost like a Twizzler candy.’ He realized that same configuration could work for heat pumps, allowing more pipes to go into the ground and making the transfer of heat much easier. It made his old patent ‘seem cumbersome and inefficient by comparison,’ Mr. Jensen says. Over the next few months, he wrote two new patent applications and incorporated a new business, Agreenability. Now, two years later, he says he has completed research and development and is getting ready to launch his product.”

Moving from recreation to collaboration, Chris Thoen, a former managing director of the global open innovation office for Procter & Gamble and now a senior vice president/global head for science and technology at Givaudan Flavors Corporation in Cincinnati, insists that “the future of competition is not going to be how well organizations create innovation on their own.” [“Collaborative Innovation Is the Key to Survival – Not Going It Alone,” SupplyChainBrain, 28 September 2011] A number of creativity gurus insist that the myth of the lone genius persists because there is generally a “face,” like Thomas Edison, that represents what is really a team effort. Thoen believes that go-it-alone creative companies also represent a bit of a myth. He believes that “few companies can go it alone and remain viable.” The article explains:

“In today’s marketplace, innovation is the cornerstone of competitive survival. … However, fostering innovation with suppliers through collaborative support and trusted relationships is no easy task. Innovation for any company represents potential revenue and leverage over competitors. It’s time to dismantle the barriers to collaborative innovation and consider the value proposition and return on investment that is attainable. It’s going to require giving and taking from both sides. However, the results may transform how the supply chain collaborates, and bring solutions to the marketplace. … Those that win in the future will be good at finding innovation, no matter where it is happening — internally and externally. ‘You must be good at creating a comfort zone so that external partners will want to work with you as a company, on an ongoing basis,’ says Thoen. ‘It’s about establishing those sustainable relationships where you can create new innovations over and over again with those partners.'”

To learn more about collaborative innovation, read my post entitled Collaborative Innovation in the Supply Chain. From collaboration we move to imitation. Lucy Kellaway insists that “Copying, the mother of the best inventions.” Financial Times, 6 November 2011] She came to this conclusion while reading a book entitled, I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behaviour, written by three academics who argue that almost all of our decisions are based on copying.” She continues:

“The book argues that as life gets more complicated, with more people and more choices, everyone does more copying. Now that I think of it, everything I do is copied. Columnists are meant to have original ideas, but I never do. The idea for this column – on copying – has been copied from this book, and its authors copied their ideas from assorted academics and social scientists. When I write a column, I take an existing idea and give it a tweak of my own. It’s roughly like buying a hat in the high street, and wearing it at a jaunty angle. There is nothing to be ashamed of in this. It is good to copy – we would have died out as a race if we didn’t do it. Copying gives me access to an infinitely richer and more varied menu of ideas than if I had to limit myself to my own meagre store.”

As I have pointed out in several past posts, scientists are developing increasingly effective products by learning from and copying nature. After all, why not learn from what nature has determined to be the best ideas developed over millions of years. Kellaway continues:

“Companies that copy do very well. Microsoft has built up a business worth $200bn or so on the basis of it. Even Apple, which is always held up as an example of a company that does things its own way, built some of its most important technology after Steve Jobs first saw it at Xerox. … Equally it’s vital for leaders. I used to have a boss who would come back from lunch having copied the views of whichever important person he’d just met. At the time I thought this was a weakness and wondered why he didn’t have any views of his own. I now see it is as a strength. By constantly copying, he was keeping fresh and flexible. Despite its undisputed value, copying has a shockingly poor image. The word makes one think of the dodgy end of the practice: cheating in exams and plagiarizing – though the latter just might be undergoing a minor rehabilitation. … While disparaging copying, we idolize creativity and innovation. On Amazon there are 2,732 management books with the word ‘innovation’ in the title. Every business school teaches courses in it. Every company frets over how to be better at generating ideas. Yet there are only a handful of titles containing the word ‘imitation’ or ‘copying’ – and they turn out to be manuals telling you how to operate a photocopier. No one, it seems, is interested in teaching us how to get better at copying, which is a pretty big oversight when this, more than anything, is the difference between success and failure.”

Imitation doesn’t suffer from a completely unsavory reputation. After all, the old adage insists that imitation is the highest form of flattery. From imitation we move to frustration. By frustration, I mean getting emotionally worked up because the things we want to accomplish aren’t easy. Luke Johnson agrees that a lot of innovation is achieved only after a lot of frustration has been experienced. [“Trial and error drives innovation,” Financial Times, 6 September 2011] He writes:

“One of the best short books of the year is The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen. He argues that the west has reached a technological plateau: we have eaten all the low-hanging economic fruit, so growth is stunted and progress will be much harder from here. … The author’s core concept – that innovative breakthroughs are much scarcer than before – implies that we must become better at industrial invention if we are to recover our living standards and tackle unemployment. … So how on earth do society and industry become more innovative? There are hundreds of books, business school papers and conference speakers that provide possible solutions. One of the better recent works is Little Bets by Peter Sims. His basic insight is that original thinkers use many small, experimental prototypes to test and evolve ideas that are achievable and affordable. As ever, it is about making mistakes – but making sure they are inexpensive – and learning from the error.”

Mistakes can certainly prove frustrating; but, if mistakes are viewed as lessons learned, the frustration can be reduced. Mistakes are also at the heart of the final topic: miscalculation. Some of the greatest innovations in history are the result of mistakes. Deborah Gage reports, “Inventors from Archimedes to Thomas Edison and Jonas Salk have made mistakes that caused their discoveries to develop in surprisingly helpful directions.” [“Wharton Tries to Define ‘Brilliant Mistakes’,” Wall Street Journal, 15 February 2012]. Gage continues:

“Now the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School is trying to capture mistakes like this, with the idea that making mistakes on purpose is something that all of us could be taught. … The business school named the winners of its first Brilliant Mistakes Contest, which awarded prizes (including Southwest Airlines tickets, free courses and conference tickets, and lunch with a contest judge) to people whose mistakes were the most productive. The winners are Dr. Stephen Salzman of Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, who proved that his hypothesis on why athletes have low heart rates was completely wrong; Annie Banannie aka Laura Caldwell of Acme Balloon Company, a story teller who was forced to ad-lib her show in front of 200 children at a library in Colorado and decided that ad-libbing was ‘the best show idea ever;’ and Matthew Lynch of Palmetto GBA, who changed the way his company analyzed Medicare claims and payments and stumbled on startling new methods of fraud.”

Paul Schoemaker, the author of Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success On The Far Side Of Failure and a contest judge, told Gage, “Executives would say, I learn from my mistakes, and I’d say since mistakes are random, why not make a few more? People don’t have a good answer—it seems like a totally silly idea to make mistakes on purpose–but what’s the chance that you or I have encountered the optimal number of challenges to our beliefs?” There is a good answer to why people don’t like making mistakes in business, they generally end up costing you money and that’s not good for the bottom line. The only real tragic mistake, however, is the one from which you learn nothing.


The point of this post is that no matter what you are doing today, you will be presented with an opportunity to be more creative. You might get a brilliant insight while getting a massage. You might get a great idea while working with a friend. You might find a creative way to use slug slime to make a new product. Or you might learn some interesting things while making a mistake. Seeing with open eyes and thinking with an open mind, you’ll be amazed how creative you really can be.

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