Sunday, November 25, 2012

Don't Fence Me In!

"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of old ones."
~ John Cage

I find the progress of innovation and the diffusion of new ideas fascinating subjects. Where innovations come from and how they permeate the world has been studied with increasing frequency in the last ten to fifteen years. Today there is no shortage of information on innovation and how to spark creativity. A great book on the subject of innovation is “The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the five skills of disruptive innovators” ( Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christiansen extensively document how entrepreneurial innovators as varied as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz (founder of Starbucks) and many others developed so many groundbreaking ideas. The authors’ findings are broken down into what they call five “Discovery Skills.” Even if you are not an entrepreneur the concepts can help you bring fresh ideas to your writing, art or profession.

The Discovery Skills are:
  1. Associating: “the ability to make surprising connections across areas of knowledge, industries, or geographies”
  2. Questioning: Keep asking the powerful, simple questions “Why?” and “Why not?”
  3. Observing: Watching the way things work in different environments can often help connect “common threads across unconnected data”
  4. Networking: Especially beyond  your normal realm of contacts to generate new ideas
  5. Experimenting: Typically, not the conventional laboratory type but trying things out, often in the real world, to answer “what-if” questions.
The resistance to innovation is equally fascinating. Today some of the most useful, commonplace things in our everyday lives were once crackpot ideas, ridiculed by experts and common folk alike. Most of us are probably familiar with the scorn heaped on electric lights, airplanes, automobiles and computers when they were first introduced. There were lots of good reasons why they would fail. They were too expensive, too complicated, destroyed some status quo or threatened the livelihoods of powerful people. There was lots of resistance, lots of inertia working against change.

Resistance to older, more basic inventions may be more surprising. Writing, for example (yes the written word) was once a new idea and some people just didn’t like it. Socrates, for one, was dead set against it. He was a big proponent of memorization. Plato quoted Socrates as saying writing “destroys memory,” “weakens the mind” and is an “inhuman thing.” In the world of Socrates (Greece, about 400 BC) writing was an innovative new technology. It was more expensive than using human memory and difficult to implement. The new writers were using existing tools (sharply cut reeds and clay tablets) in new ways. Clay and reeds had been around for a long time but nobody had used them together in a way that facilitated communication. The brave citizens who wanted to write not only had to learn how to use these silly new tools correctly, they had to overcome resistance to doing something completely new and also overcome the ridicule of their peers. 

But you might be thinking that Socrates is generally understood to be a pretty bright guy. How did he miss the writing thing? It should have been a natural fit for him with his education and position as a major thought leader of his era. Couldn’t he see it coming? Why wasn’t he on the development team? My theory is that he missed the whole point of writing and its obvious potential because he didn’t have good enough “discovery skills,” especially when it came to circulating and connecting with people who thought and did things differently than he did. He didn’t network enough with people from different backgrounds, with different jobs, different experiences. While Socrates was an innovative philosopher and one of the great thinkers in recorded history he wasn’t necessarily open to ideas outside his area of expertise. A little too insulated, he spent much of his life in the same place (Athens) talking to the same people (aristocratic young Athenians) about the same things (knowledge and virtue).  

Nothing wrong with knowledge, virtue or Athenians but sometimes you need to expand your horizons, even when you’re a great thinker in your field. Do you want to be in on the next big idea or improve on some promising smaller ideas? Break out of your routine or, better yet, sharpen up your discovery skills to create new routines that nurture fresh ideas. Get out of the same old space. Mix it up a little. Meet some interesting new people. Ask lots of questions. Experiment. Don’t let yourself get fenced in. Who knows, you may even be inspired to invent something as revolutionary as writing.