In The Power of Why, Amanda Lang argues that innovation is simpler than you think.
One reason we're endlessly focused on expert innovation, or as she calls it, innovation window dressing, is our core belief that innovation is difficult. According to one recent study, 68 percent of business leaders believe that innovators are "born and cannot be made."
However, scientists have shown the exact opposite is true. For instance, a landmark study of identical twins who were separated at birth found that although 80 percent of the variation on IQ tests is attributable to genetics, only 30 percent of performance on creativity tests can be explained that way. In other words, 70 percent of creativity is related to environment, which means that it's entirely possible for just about anyone to learn to think more innovatively. [The Power of Why]
What is innovation?
Innovation is not, as many people believe, synonymous with invention and therefore out of the reach of the average person. It's simpler than you might think. You don't have to create something mind-blowing and entirely new, like the automobile or the internet. Often, innovation simply means making incremental improvements to something that already exists… And frequently that's accomplished by borrowing and adapting an idea or approach or technology from another field altogether. [The Power of Why]
Sounds a lot like how Gutenberg developed the printing press. "An important part of Gutenberg's genius," writes Steven Johnson, "lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology from scratch, but instead from borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem."
So innovation is often remixing and cross-pollinating ideas. Most innovation starts with curiosity. Can this be done? Can this be improved? Why won't this work?
A lot of us, though, just don't do this. On the job and at home, many of us hit on an answer that sounds "right," or that others approve of, then figure question period is over. We burrow down and focus on implementing whatever solution we've devised, unwilling to revisit or rethink it. And that's a mistake. Sometimes it's the follow-up question, or the one after that, that is going to field the game-changing revelation….Just stopping at the first plausible response is how a lot of us get stuck and find ourselves unable to solve problems. [The Power of Why]
Sounds like we're losing our grit. We've been brought up to think we're so smart and clever that we just give up when we come against a tough problem.
The main difference between innovators and the rest of us is that innovators ask more and better questions "and they are more driven to find answers and embrace them, even if the answers are first not what they wanted or expected to find," Lang writes. "They have less in common with Einstein, frankly, than with young children."
Kids do a lot of things we've learned not to do, ignoring conventional wisdom in the process. Most times the results are as you'd expect — sticking your tongue on cold metal? Yeah, that was a bad idea. But sometimes the ideas stick and they come up with something we never would have thought of.
So when kids ask questions encourage them. When you don't answer questions, kids do an odd thing: They stop asking.
That's exactly what we don't want them to do, for a number of reasons. For starters, highly curious kids learn more; the more they find out, the more they realize they don't know and the deeper they dig for information, whether the topic they're interested in is computers or rap or chemistry. Curiosity is, therefore, strongly correlated with intelligence. … Researchers found that kids who had been equally intelligent at age three were, at eleven, no longer equal. The ones who'd been more curious at three were now also more intelligent, which isn't terribly surprising when you consider how curiosity drives the acquisition of knowledge. [The Power of Why]
"In the industrial economy, the person who wins is the expert," explains Claude Legrand, co-author of Innovative Intelligence. "In the knowledge economy, the person who wins is the one who has the process to solve complex problems."
Lang also blows up some myths about innovation.
1. Innovation is about the newest thing
Sometimes a great innovation is indeed a "step-change": The motorized vehicle that displaces the horse and buggy. But most innovation is incremental. From my own favorite, life-improving innovation — the curved shower rod — to just about any product or service you can name, little improvements and developments are being introduced all the time. [The Power of Why]
2. Innovation is a solo activity
Consistent with our tendency to think of innovation solely in terms of mind-blowing new inventions, we often think of innovators as geniuses, oddballs with wild ideas and wilder hair. People who occupy the far end of the innovation spectrum were probably less easily tamed by our school systems and may therefore be less comfortable in corporate environments. But even mavericks and mad scientist types need other people to implement the innovations they've dreamed up, and usually, those other people wind up incrementally improving their inventions in some way. [The Power of Why]
3. Innovation can't be taught
Every day, people like Colonel Rolf Smith teach organizations, businesses, and individuals how to get in touch with their inner innovator. But teaching innovative thinking isn't like teaching math or French — it's more a matter of teaching people how to harness their existing natural curiosity in order to unleash their innate capacity for innovation. [The Power of Why]
4. Innovation is top-down
Remember the flocking theory? Flying in formation, birds on the periphery — where the risks are, and where you can see more — send messages and warning signals to bring flying in the centre, where it's more protected and safer. Similarly, in a fast-food restaurant, the clerk at the counter cottons on long before anyone at head office does that the new trays are flimsy and hard to stack. In a hospital, the nurses may resist washing their hands unless there's a way to communicate both up and down the food chain that the problem is the harsh cleanser they're made to use. Smart companies like Four Seasons and Whole Foods explicitly recognize that the closer an employee is to the end-user, the more likely he or she is to have concrete ideas about how to innovate — and the more important it is for the higher-ups to listen. [The Power of Why]
5. You can't force innovation
It's very true that you can't tell others to start innovating pronto, and expect much good to come of it. But you can create an environment that encourages and rewards curiosity and therefore promotes engagement and innovation. [The Power of Why]
6. Change is always good
Tell that to the product team that dreamed up New Coke. The funny thing about that epic failure was that the beverage itself actually tested well — people liked the stuff. What didn't fly was the implication that there was something wrong with Old Coke. … The sheer math on ideas suggests that about half of them will be lousy. But that's not catastrophic unless the lesson taken is that there's no point in continuing to dream up anything new, and it's safer to stick with what's always worked in the past. [The Power of Why]
7. Innovation isn't for everyone
Let's put this one to rest forever. Remember how kids in developing countries respond to the Soccket? When they see the ball, they almost immediately start asking questions and dreaming up their own innovations. Innovative thinking is contagious. It's a bug that anyone can catch.
Since our ancestors first stood upright, humans beings have been innovating: More and better tools, different and improved circumstances, more effective and efficient ways of doing things. It's pretty silly to think we've suddenly all lost that basic drive now that we've hit the twenty-first century. If anything, our capacity to innovate is now exponentially greater because of our unprecedented ability to share information and ideas, which also makes it much easier to take something from one field and apply it to another. [The Power of Why]
More from Farnam Street...
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Syrian women know how to defeat ISIS
- Will Kobani be ISIS's Waterloo?
- The one thing the New Atheists get right about religion
- The U.S. Marines are developing laser weapons. Here's why.
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 10 things you need to know today: October 21, 2014
- Paul Krugman, Amazon, and the left's backwards view of book-industry titans
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Gamergate has backfired spectacularly on its nincompoop perpetrators
Subscribe to the Week