'Innovation' is the worst kind of buzzword. It reverberates over and over and with each utterance, it's stripped of any real meaning. More than anything, the term signals an urgency to be more forward-thinking; to be more progressive in terms of how we think about growing or developing new ideas. It's a call to truly invent something new.

But its overuse has made the term shallow, and it washes over us without any real significance. More often than not, calling out 'innovation' is an effort to leverage a newfangled technology, target 'millennials', think about China, or use some other buzzword like 'disruption', 'design thinking' or 'lean startup'. These sorts of terms serve as a crutch in business. By speaking the right language in our work, they give us a false sense of confidence that we are indeed prepared for the future. But it's not the terms that should give us confidence - it's the work itself.

Similarly, when it comes to actually conducting product (dare I say it) innovation, or developing a new widget, there is an unhealthy dependency on models, frameworks and processes. Usually they involve a diagram such as a cycle, chronological map or triangle. These systems promise to organize the path to creativity and lay out a linear and logical way to develop something new or breakthrough. And the processes themselves serve as a security blanket, providing a false sense of security in the midst of the anxiety and urgency to create.

There is more effort in organizing innovation than there is in innovation itself:

"Over the past 15 years, the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals needed...has increased by anywhere from 50 percent to 350%."  - BCG Study of US and Europe.

This claim to organize innovation - that there is a process by which it can be guaranteed - is arrogant. We do not have all the answers in a box, and part of the magic in creating something new is just that: magic. The unknown, the exploration, the uncertainty.

"Intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole. The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle's day." - Thomas Nagel, American Philosopher, Professor at NYU, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

These innovation processes carry with them a sense of hubris. We shouldn't assume that we understand everything well enough to concoct something so transactionally. We're talking about invention. Processes, systems, tools and structures might be able to foster an environment where creativity can exist, but they themselves do not foster creativity. The imagination works on its own terms and you can't ignite the creative spirit with a switch.

Here are three principles that help us break free from our dependence on structure and achieve a more organic and natural creativity:

Naiveté

There is a curse in knowledge. The more we learn about the 'right' way to do something, the more we believe it's the 'only' way to do something. We end up creating solutions that fit our expectations rather than developing something new or better.

Chaos

Creativity is inherently messy. It thrives on chaos, and the more stimuli and disorder there is, the more likely we are to stumble upon new patterns and disparate connections. Some of the most creative people in history, like Albert Einstein, Mark Twain or Steve Jobs, were all known for their very, very messy desks. Post-It Notes, Penicillin and Viagra are all happy accidents that came about unwittingly. We have clients that embody this idea in their innovation mantra: "Maximum speed, zero direction".

Risk

We are creatures of habit and find comfort in routines. But it is in the routine that ideas get stale. Real innovation requires a sense of fear, to be confronted with the unknown and run the risk of failure. It is in the urgency that we can become newly resourceful.

Ultimately, it's not the process that should give us confidence, it's our craft and know-how. Through experience and studying the pathway to good ideas, we develop a fluency in innovation that cannot be packaged into a process.

These foundational skills give us the freedom to improvise and find something new. John Coltrane, for example, is credited with his musical ingenuity, but his staunch understanding of the craft of music has a lot to do with what enabled him to be so creative. After all, it's in understanding the "mathematics of music" that Coltrane discovered the spaces between the notes.

Published on: Nov 16, 2017