Five primary discovery skills—skills that compose what we call the innovator’s DNA—surfaced from our conversations. We found that innovators “Think Different,” to use a well-known Apple slogan. Their minds excel at linking together ideas that aren’t obviously related to produce original ideas (we call this cognitive skill “associational thinking” or “associating”). But to think different, innovators had to “act different.” All were questioners, frequently asking questions that punctured the status quo. Some observed the world with intensity beyond the ordinary. Others networked with the most diverse people on the face of the earth. Still others placed experimentation at the center of their innovative activity. When engaged in consistently, these actions—questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting—triggered associational thinking to deliver new businesses, products, services, and/or processes.
Most of us believe that the ability to think creatively is genetic. It’s not.
Most of us believe that some people, like (Steve) Jobs, are simply born with creative genes, while others are not. Innovators are supposedly right brained, meaning that they are genetically endowed with creative abilities. The rest of us are left brained—logical, linear thinkers, with little or no ability to think creatively. … (You’re wrong!) At least within the realm of business innovation, virtually everyone has some capacity for creativity and innovative thinking. Even you.
Behaviors drive innovation.
A critical insight from our research is that one’s ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of behaviors. This is good news for us all because it means that if we change our behaviors, we can improve our creative impact.
The five skills of disruptive innovators are:
Associating: Innovators associate ideas that are previously unconnected either to solve problems or create something new. This is how Gutenberg created the printing press. When forming teams, keep cross-pollination of experiences and perspectives in mind. But you also need the glue. You need someone in the room with loose associations who can pull ideas together.
Questioning: Innovators ask a ton of questions. In fact, they treat the world as a question. Managers ask ‘how’ questions — how are we going to speed that up, how are we going to stop this from happening. Innovators ask ‘why.’ They are the kid at the back of the class the teacher hates (and often, the person in the meeting the manager hates.) Not only does this help you filter bullshit, but it helps jolt people from the status quo.
Networking: Talking to people is a great source of ideas. People offer different perspectives. They may have just failed at something but you may be able to apply the same idea to a different problem. You need to be open to these perspectives, even if you just file them away for another day. (see #1)
Experimenting: If the world is their question it is also their lab. Fail often. Fail fast. Fail Cheap. Try again. Never give up.
You can see how these are somewhat synergistic. They all fit together, each one making the other parts stronger. If you can only pick two focus on asking questions and networking.
It’s easy to make your organization more innovative if you stop trying to show everyone how innovative you are.
What can you do to add more innovation to your organization? A question, no doubt, asked in every organization. There are simple accessible answers to that question all over the place and countless best-selling books. It’s an easy question to answer, but it’s the wrong question.
There are generally two ways to become more innovative.
We can add things to what we’re already doing (innovation by addition), or we can take things away that get in the way of innovation (innovation by subtraction).
We tend to focus on additive innovation because it’s a lot easier than subtractive innovation.
We can add innovation days. Add time for employees to work on whatever they want. Add inspirational quotes to the walls for all employees to read and digest. It is as if we somehow believe reading these clichés and over-generalizations will nudge employees towards becoming the next Einstein.
But we all know this crap doesn’t work. So why do we do it?
Innovation by addition is tangible. All of this crap demonstrates activity. When asked the inevitable question, “What are you doing to improve innovation,” answers are easy and visible. It doesn’t work but it feels like we’re adding value.
Additive Innovation quickly turns into activity for its own sake: innovation champions, innovation awards, innovation panels. You get the picture. The workforce, seeing this sop for what it is, disengages and goes back to doing things the same why they always did. (Only now they are even busier because they have to sort through this crap.)
But…here’s another thought.
Most of the businesses I know that truly innovate over long periods spend more time inverting the problem. Rather than ask how to promote innovation they ask what destroys innovation? And, remarkably, they stop doing as much of that stuff as they can.
Instead of looking for how to succeed at innovation, look for how to fail at it. It’s a fun exercise until you realize how many of those things you currently do at your company.
Want to kill innovation? Make people attend meetings all day. Send them emails every 30 seconds. Bombard them with too much work. Kill their enthusiasm. Make them write pages of pointless prose to justify something that should be simple. … You get the picture.
Subtractive innovation is not easy. When someone asks what you’re doing to encourage innovation you can’t point to a meeting, champion, or an award. Answering that question with what you stopped doing or some process you removed because it was no longer adding value requires two skills that are easily dismissed in the sound byte corporate culture: thought and nuance.
In the foreword to the book, Behance founder Scott Belsky, author Making Ideas Happen, explains the concept of free radicals.
Chalk it up to new technology, social media, or the once out-of-reach business tools now at your fingertips. The fact is, we’re empowered to work on our own terms and do more with less. As a result, we expect more from those that employ us and we expect more from ourselves. When we get the resources and opportunities we deserve, we create the future.
Here’s a name for us: Free Radicals.
Free Radicals want to take their careers into their own hands and put the world to work for them. Free Radicals are resilient, self-reliant, and extremely potent. You’ll find them working solo, in small teams, or within large companies. As the world changes, Free Radicals have re-imagined “work” as we know it. No doubt, we have lofty expectations:
We do work that is, first and foremost, intrinsically rewarding. But, we don’t create solely for ourselves, we want to make a real and lasting impact in the world around us.
We thrive on flexibility and are most productive when we feel fully engaged. We demand freedom, whether we work within companies or on our own, to run experiments, participate in multiple projects at once, and move our ideas forward.
We make stuff often, and therefore, we fail often. Ultimately, we strive for little failures that help us course-correct along the way, and we view every failure as a learning opportunity, part of our experiential education.
We have little tolerance for the friction of bureaucracy, old-boy networks, and antiquated business practices. As often as possible, we question “standard operating procedure” and assert ourselves. But even when we can’t, we don’t surrender to the friction of the status quo. Instead, we find clever ways (and hacks) around it.
We expect to be fully utilized and constantly optimized, regardless of whether we’re working in a start-up or a large organization. When our contributions and learning plateau, we leave. But when we’re leveraging a large company’s resources to make an impact in something we care about, we are thrilled! We want to always be doing our best work and making the greatest impact we can.
We believe that “networking” is sharing. People listen to (and follow) us because of our discernment and curatorial instinct. As we share our creations as well as what fascinates us, we authentically build a community of supporters who give us feedback, encouragement, and lead us to new opportunities. For this reason and more, we often (though, not always) opt for transparency over privacy.
We believe in meritocracy and the power of online networks and peer communities to advance our ability to do what we love, and do well by doing it. We view competition as a positive motivator rather than a threat, because we want the best idea—and the best execution—to triumph.
We make a great living doing what we love. We consider ourselves to be both artisans and businesses. In many cases, we are our own accounting department, Madison Avenue marketing agency, business development manager, negotiator, and salesperson. We spend the necessary energy to invest in ourselves as businesses—leveraging the best tools and knowledge (most of which are free and online) to run ourselves as a modern-day enterprise.
This pattern is common in the lives of people who end up loving their work. As described in Lesson 1, careers become compelling once they feature the general traits you seek. These traits, however, are rare and valuable—no one will hand you a lot of autonomy or impact just because you really want it, for example. Basic economics tells us that if you want something rare and valuable, you need to offer something rare and valuable in return—and in the working world, what you have to offer are your skills. This is why the systematic development of skill almost always precedes passion.
In other words, Newport argues that what you do for a living matters less than you think.
“[T]he right question is not “What job am I passionate about doing?” but instead, “What way of working and living will nurture my passion.”
Stepping back, he writes:
The goal of feeling passionate about your work is sound. But following your passion—choosing a career path solely because you are already passionate about the nature of the work—is a poor strategy for accomplishing this goal. It assumes that you have a pre-existing passion to follow that matches up to a viable career, and that matching your work to a strong interest is sufficient to build long-term career satisfaction. Both of these assumptions are flawed.
Newport argues a more sophisticated strategy for finding passion means “we should begin by developing rare and valuable skills.” Once we’ve done that, we can use these skills to navigate our career towards the general lifestyle that resonates with us.
In a section on reprogramming your daily habits, Scott Young speaks to how automatic many of our decisions become and how routines drive our lives.
If you think hard about it, you’ll notice just how many “automatic” decisions you make each day. But these habits aren’t always as trivial as what you eat for breakfast. Your health, your productivity, and the growth of your career are all shaped by the things you do each day — most by habit, not by choice.
Even the choices you do make consciously are heavily influenced by automatic patterns. Researchers have found that our conscious mind is better understood as an explainer of our actions, not the cause of them. Instead of triggering the action itself, our consciousness tries to explain why we took the action after the fact, with varying degrees of success. This means that even the choices we do appear to make intentionally are at least somewhat influenced by unconscious patterns.
Given this, what you do every day is best seen as an iceberg, with a small fraction of conscious decision sitting atop a much larger foundation of habits and behaviors.
All of the work I’ve been doing looking at how creativity and insight emerge—from Graham Wallas Stages of Control to a technique for producing ideas and Gary Klein’s triple path—focuses on individual creativity.
That doesn’t explain group creativity or innovation. How does that happen?
Enter Keith Sawyer. Sawyer recognized the problem and began to search for an alternative to the individual approach.
The more I observed creativity in action the more I realized that the most radical breakthroughs—including television, the airplane, e-mail, and even the board game Monopoly—emerged from a collaborative web that can’t be contained within any one company’s walls.
These innovations all come from webs of people working together. They are born in collaboration.
There’s no magic or mystery to the flash of insight. Indeed, using clever research designs, scientists have demonstrated how moments of insight can be traced back to previous dedication, hard work, and collaboration. And they’ve shown how we can all tap into the creative power of collaboration to make our own insights.
So how do we unlock the power of collaboration to generate innovation? It starts with teams.
Sawyer identified seven key characteristics of creative teams.
1. Innovation Emerges over Time
No single actor comes up with the big picture, the whole plot. The play emerges bit by bit. Each actor, in each line of dialogue, contributes a small idea. In theater, we can see this process on stage; but with an innovative team, outsiders never see the long chain of small, incremental ideas that lead to the final innovation. Without scientific analysis, the collaboration remains invisible. Successful innovations happen when organizations combine just the right ideas in just the right structure.
2. Successful Collaborative Teams Practice Deep Listening
Trained improv actors listen for the new ideas that the other actors offer in their improvised lines, at the same time that they’re coming up with their own ideas. This difficult balancing act is essential to group genius. Most people spend too much time planning their own actions and not enough time listening and observing others.
3. Team Members Build on Their Collaborators’ Ideas
When teams practice deep listening, each new idea is an extension of the ideas that have come before. The Wright brothers couldn’t have thought of a moving vertical tail until after they discovered adverse yaw, and that discovery emerged from their experiments with wing warping.
Although a single person may get credit for a specific idea, it’s hard to imagine that person having that idea apart from the hard work, in close quarters, of a dedicated team of like-minded individuals. Russ Mahon—one of the Morrow Dirt Club bikers from Cupertino—usually gets credit for putting the first derailleur on a fat-tired bike, but all ten members of the club played a role.
4. Only Afterwards Does the Meaning of Each Idea Become Clear
Even a single idea can’t be attributed to one person because ideas don’t take on their full importance until they’re taken up, reinterpreted, and applied by others. At the beginning of Jazz Freddy’s performance, we don’t know what John is doing: Is he studying for a test? Is he balancing the books of a criminal organization? Although he was the first actor to think of “studying,” the others decided that he would be a struggling umpire, a man stubbornly refusing to admit that he needed glasses. Individual creative actions take on meaning only later, after they are woven into other ideas, created by other actors. In a creative collaboration, each person acts without knowing what his or her action means. Participants are willing to allow other people to give their action meaning by building on it later.
5. Surprising Questions Emerge
The most transformative creativity results when a group either thinks of a new way to frame a problem or finds a new problem that no one had noticed before. When teams work this way, ideas are often transformed into questions and problems. That’s critical, because creativity researchers have discovered that the most creative groups are good at finding new problems rather than simply solving old ones.
6. Innovation Is Inefficient
In improvisation, actors have no time to evaluate new ideas before they speak. But without evaluation, how can they make sure it’ll be good? Improvised innovation makes more mistakes, and has as many misses as hits. But the hits can be phenomenal; they’ll make up for the inefficiency and the failures.
After the full hourlong Jazz Freddy performance, we never do learn why Bill and Mary are making copies for John— that idea doesn’t go anywhere. In the second act, a brief subplot in which two actors are in the witness protection program also is never developed. Some ideas are just bad ideas; some of them are good in themselves, but the other ideas that would be necessary to turn them into an innovation just haven’t happened yet. In a sixty-minute improvisation, many ideas are proposed that are never used. When we look at an innovation after the fact, all we remember is the chain of good ideas that made it into the innovation; we don’t notice the many dead ends.
7. Innovation Emerges from the Bottom Up
Improvisational performances are self-organizing. With no director and no script, the performance emerges from the joint actions of the actors. In the same way, the most innovative teams are those that can restructure themselves in response to unexpected shifts in the environment; they don’t need a strong leader to tell them what to do. Moreover, they tend to form spontaneously; when like-minded people find each other, a group emerges.
The improvisational collaboration of the entire group translates moments of individual creativity into group innovation. Allowing the space for this self-organizing emergence to occur is difficult for many managers because the outcome is not controlled by the management team’s agenda and is therefore less predictable. Most business executives like to start with the big picture and then work out the details. In improvisational innovation, teams start with the details and then work up to the big picture. It’s riskier and less efficient, but when a successful innovation emerges, it’s often so surprising and imaginative that no single individual could have thought of it.
If you’re interested in learning more about the creative power of collaboration, read Group Genius.
“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”
— David Foster Wallace
Conversations with David Foster Wallace is an essential look into the thinking of one of the great minds. It doesn’t however, offer many thoughts on the relationship between ambition and perfection. For that, we can turn to this beautiful PBS clip.
On perfectionism, Foster Wallace says:
You know, the whole thing about perfectionism — The perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in … It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.
On learning through teaching:
I was a very difficult person to teach when I was a student and I thought I was smarter than my teachers and they told me a lot of things that I thought were retrograde or outdated or B.S. And I’ve learned more teaching in the last three years than I ever learned as a student. And a lot of it is that when you see students work where the point, whether it’s stated or not, is basically that they’re clever, and to try and articulate to the student how empty and frustrating it is for a reader to invest their time and attention in something and to feel that the agenda is basically to show you that the writer is clever. All the kind of stuff, right, when I’m doing my little onanistic, clever stuff in grad school, that when my professors would talk to me about it, I would go, “Well, they don’t understand. I’m a genius, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Now that I’m the teacher, I’m starting to learn—it’s like the older you get, the smarter your parents get—now I’m starting to learn that they had some smart stuff to tell me.
Wallas’s model “is still the most common explanation of how insight works. If you do any exploration into the field of insight, you can’t go far without bumping into Wallas, who is the epitome of a British freethinking intellectual,” writes Gary Klein in Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights.
The Creativity Question, published in 1976, preserves Wallas’s “Stages of Control” and presents his model of insight: (1) preparation; (2) incubation; (3) illumination; and (4) verification.
During the preparation stage we investigate a problem, applying ourselves to an analysis that is hard, conscious, systematic, but fruitless.
Then we shift to the incubation stage, in which we stop consciously thinking about the problem and let our unconscious mind take over. Wallas quoted the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, who in 1891 at the end of his career offered some reflections on how this incubation stage feels. After working hard on a project, Helmholtz explained that “happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table. They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.”
Wallas advised his readers to take this incubation stage seriously. We should seek out mental relaxation and stop thinking about the problem. We should avoid anything that might interfere with the free working of the unconscious mind, such as reading serious materials.
Next comes the illumination stage, when insight bursts forth with conciseness, suddenness, and immediate certainty. Wallas believed that the insight, the “happy idea,” was the culmination of a train of unconscious associations. These associations had to mature outside of conscious scrutiny until they were ready to surface. Wallas claimed that people could sometimes sense that an insight was brewing in their minds. The insight starts to make its appearance in fringe consciousness, giving people an intimation that the flash of illumination is nearby. At this point the insight might drift away and not evolve into consciousness. Or it might get interrupted by an intrusion that causes it to miscarry. That’s why if people feel this intimation arising while reading, they often stop and gaze out into space, waiting for the insight to appear. Wallas warned of the danger of trying to put the insight into words too quickly, before it was fully formed.
Finally, during the verification stage we test whether the idea is valid. If the insight is about a topic such as mathematics, we may need to consciously work out the details during this final stage.
Wallas noted that none of these stages exist in isolation.
In the daily stream of thought these four different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems. An economist reading a Blue Book, a physiologist watching an experiment, or a business man going through his morning’s letters, may at the same time be “incubating” on a problem which he proposed to himself a few days ago, be accumulating knowledge in “preparation” for a second problem, and be “verifying” his conclusions on a third problem. Even in exploring the same problem, the mind may be unconsciously incubating on one aspect of it, while it is consciously employed in preparing for or verifying another aspect. And it must always be remembered that much very important thinking, done for instance by a poet exploring his own memories, or by a man trying to see clearly his emotional relation to his country or his party, resembles musical composition in that the stages leading to success are not very easily fitted into a “problem and solution” scheme. Yet, even when success in thought means the creation of something felt to be beautiful and true rather than the solution of a prescribed problem, the four stages of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and the Verification of the final result can generally be distinguished from each other. (The Creativity Question)
If you talk to anyone about insight today, most people are familiar with the model Wallas proposed.
“It’s a very satisfying explanation that has a ring of plausibility,” writes Klein, “until we examine it more closely.”
Klein points to many counterexamples where people had insights that came unexpectedly, without a preparation stage. A lot of people aren’t wrestling with a problem when they come up with an accidental insight.
According to Wallas, when we’re stuck and need to find an insight that will get us past an impasse, we should start with deliberate preparation. … One flaw in Wallas’s method is that his sample of cases was skewed. He only studied success stories. He didn’t consider all the cases in which people prepared very hard but got nowhere.(Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights)
Specific preparation doesn’t always lead to insights. And the people who gain insights may or may not follow the Wallas model, so perhaps it is incomplete.
We need another theory.
Sometimes shifts in thinking are not about making minor adjustments or adding details. Sometimes we fundamentally shift core beliefs. This allows us to see the problem in a new way and may lead to insight. We shift from a poor story to a better one. These are discontinuous discoveries.
Insights shift us toward a new story, a new set of beliefs that are more accurate, more comprehensive, and more useful. Our insights transform us in several ways. They change how we understand, act, see, feel, and desire. They change how we understand. They transform our thinking; our new story gives us a different viewpoint. They change how we act. … Insights transform how we see; we look for different things in keeping with our new story. (Seeing What Others Don’t)
In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel makes an important observation, “Insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.” After insight, everything is different.
Insights are unique is some other ways:
When they do appear, they are coherent and unambiguous. They don’t come as part of a set of possible answers. When we have the insight, we think, “Oh yes, that’s it.” We feel a sense of closure. This sense of closure produces a feeling of confidence in the insight. (Seeing What Others Don’t)
The Difference Between Insight and Intuition
Intuition is the use of patterns they’ve already learned, whereas insight is the discovery of new patterns. (Seeing What Others Don’t)
The Role of Stories
Stories are a way we frame and organize the details of a situation. There are other types of frames besides stories, such as maps and even organizational wiring diagrams that show where people stand in a hierarchy. … These kinds of stories organize all kinds of details about a situation and depend on a few core beliefs we can call “anchors,” because they are fairly stable and anchor the way we interpret the other details. (Seeing What Others Don’t)
And anchors can change. They change when we get new information. They change when we shift our beliefs.
What causes us to change our story? Klein proposes five strategies connections, coincidences, curiosities, contradictions, and creative desperation.
In all of these cases we change our story.
When faced with creative desperation, we try to find a weak belief that is trapping us. We want to jettison this belief so that we can escape from fixation and from impasse. In contrast, when using a contradiction strategy, we center on the weak belief. We take it seriously instead of explaining it away or trying to jettison it. We use it to rebuild our story. (Seeing What Others Don’t)
When we’re desperate, we’re more likely to attack a weak anchor and give something a try.
In times of desperation, we actively search for an assumption we can reverse. We don’t seek to imagine the implications if the assumption was valid. Rather, we try to improve the situation by eliminating the assumption. (Seeing What Others Don’t)
But changing our story is not the only way to gain insight. We can also add new anchors.
The Triple Path
In the end, Klein came up with the tripe path model of insight, which tries to capture the similarities between the strategies.
The connection path is different from the desperation path or the contradiction path. We’re not attacking or building on weak anchors. When we make connections or notice coincidences or curiosities, we add a new anchor to our beliefs and then work out the implications. Usually the new anchor comes from a new piece of information we receive.
I’ve combined the connections, coincidences, and curiosities in the Triple Path Model. They have the same dynamic: to build on a new potential anchor. They have the same trigger: our thinking is stimulated when we notice the new anchor. Coincidences and curiosities aren’t insights in themselves; they start us on the path to identifying a new anchor that we connect to the other beliefs we hold. Connections, coincidences, and curiosities have the same activity: to combine the new anchor with others. This path to insight doesn’t force us to abandon other anchors. It lets us build a new story that shifts our understanding. This path has a different motivation, a different trigger, and a different activity from the contradiction and the creative desperation paths. Nevertheless, like the other two paths, the outcome is the same: an unexpected shift in the story.
Each of the three paths, the contradiction path, the connection path, and the creative desperation path, gets sparked in a different way. And each operates in a different fashion: to embrace an anomaly that seems like a weak anchor in a frame, to overturn that weak anchor, or to add a new anchor. Future work on insight is likely to uncover other paths to insight besides the three shown in the diagram. (Seeing What Others Don’t)
Other people weren’t wrong, they were just following one path.
The Triple Path Model shows why earlier accounts aren’t wrong as much as they are incomplete. They restrict themselves to a single path. Researchers and theorists such as Wallas who describe insight as escaping from fixation and impasses are referring to the creative desperation path. Researchers who emphasize seeing associations and combinations of ideas are referring to the connection path. Researchers who describe insight as reformulating the problem or restructuring how people think have gravitated to the contradiction path. None of them are wrong. The Triple Path Model of insight illustrates why people seem to be talking past each other. It’s because they’re on different paths. (Seeing What Others Don’t)