Who was that guy who came up with the idea of selling sliced bread? For the purpose of this discussion knowing his name is not important, what matters is knowing that sliced bread was initially marketed as the greatest innovation in the baking industry since selling wrapped bread!
This obviously implies that there was a time when bread was sold unwrapped, and someone came up with the bright idea! I am going to add to this the fact that it took 15 years for the idea of sliced bread to rise to the cult status of the best idea ever. But really, isn’t it the most obvious idea ever?
Even if it was, there had to be a “perfect storm” of circumstances for the concept to flourish. Commentators like Seth Godin focus on the importance of getting idea’s to spread, others would focus on available technology, mechanisation and automation, while others would argue that the cost of the technology has to become cheap enough before it will go mainstream. All of the above are correct.
Now, all of the circumstances for success can be “forced”, except one. Are you willing to venture a guess?
We can have engineers solve the problem of mechanisation and price of technology, we can have marketers sell the idea, but first, we need a simple and obvious thing, a thing that no one seemed to think off?
So how does it happen that no one thinks of an idea? Even an exceedingly obvious one. The wheel was invented thousands of years ago, but we have only recently started putting it on our luggage. How obvious a thing is it not to put wheels on luggage? Well, for thousands of years, nobody was doing it!
But moving on from luggage with wheels, I have chosen what I think is a much cooler example, one that is also much more relevant to this discussion.
In 1843 Charles Goodyear received the patent for vulcanisation. This process whereby sulphur is extracted from rubber effectively transformed rubber into something more useful by giving it all the characteristics we associate with rubber today. 12 years later, in 1855, Stephen Perry used rubber to create the first rubber band. 56 years later, in 1899, Humphrey O’Sullivan became the first person to put rubber on the sole’s of shoes. Even though these two products had both been available for a long time, it took someone 56 years to combine them to create shoes with rubber sole’s.
Often creativity boils down to using new representations and applying them to existing problems. This is not as easy or obvious as one would think. The example of rubber soles for shoes illustrates this very well. Consider the following. If you had a 100 different objects to combine into pairs, you have +/- 5000 different ways of combining them. If you can choose from 100 products and do a 3-way combination, the number of possibilities increase to +/- 161 000. Not only do possibilities for combinations quickly run into millions, but we also suffer from a kind of bias to the ideas that surround us.
We are often blinded by the dominant logic of our time. This creates blind spots for creativity and innovation. The question one needs to ask is this; How do we break through those blind spots to discover the obvious?
Now there are a lot of companies, books and research that offers advice and findings on how to change the way you think. I am going to offer two ideas on how to achieve this.
The first way to break through blindspots has to do with that which creates them in the first place, namely being blinded by the dominant logic of our time. Being blinded by the dominant logic basically has to do with habits. I don’t mean bad habits like biting your nails, but simply habits like accepting that chicken gets cooked with butter and salt and that is that. That is the way your grandparents did it, that is the way your parents did it, and that’s the way you do it. It has to do with resting mentally and intellectually in a place that is comfortable, somewhere your neurological apparatus feels safe and familiar. You need to question the obvious, you need to interrogate that which you completely take for granted and accept blindly as the best possible version. Often times creativity results from not being satisfied, from rejecting the solutions that we currently have, from sitting in your car and thinking, “There must be a faster way!”, and developing the idea of the drive-through.
The second has to do with making artists part of scientific minded design teams. I think that this is most likely the best option, particularly from the point of view of covering all your bases. Science mostly progresses linearly, almost like evolution, small but sure steps, and after many wrong steps, eventually finding one that works. Creativity does not move like this, there is no linear progression. It can be compared to evolution skipping all the steps in between bacteria and homo sapien, to go directly from one to the other. Many of the more revolutionary scientific breakthroughs have followed this trend. Newtons Gravity and Einsteins Special Relativity, both were inspired by “Eureka” type moments, hence Einstein’s insistence that imagination is better than knowledge. Einstein later described his breakthrough moments as having a glimpse into the mind of the Supreme Being that created the Universe.
If we are going to fast track solutions for real world problems, if we are going to solve real problems, the problems that really matter, we are going to have to try every single type of approach. Individuals who cannot conceive that that Arts and Science’s have much to contribute to each other, need simply be reminded of the works of individuals like Leonardo Da Vinci. The world would likely be better of with more Da Vinci’s, and if we cannot have individuals of great intellect and creativity, maybe its time to create teams who can bridge the gap between science and art.
I am also going to throw in the Periodic Table here, though it probably doesn’t fit the 100%. The Periodic Table is a tabular representation of chemical elements developed by Dmitri Mendeleev. A few other chemists had tried their hand at creating a table to represent the periodicity of chemical elements, but it was the one Mendeleev developed that ended up being the one we still have today. The amazing thing is that this table predicted the existence of 28 chemical elements that had at time not yet been discovered, and Mendeleev’s table turned out to be spot on. The development of something the Periodic Table was not the result of thousands of incremental steps, but rather the result of a leap of genius. And a leap that required required no small amount of creativity, meaning, applying old representations to new problems, viewing known problems from a different perspective.
How would you categorise the state of innovation in your company. An even more pending question, is do you have an innovation strategy and along with that, a working definition of what innovation is. Blinded by our End-Of-Knowledge bias, many of us tend you think that we are innovating right at the cutting edge of what is possible. With so many minds applying themselves to come up with new products and new innovations, it is almost impossible to come up with something new, right?
Let me tell you, you simply cannot be more wrong.