Friday, July 20, 2012

Obstacles to Innovation

This article about obstacles to innovation recently caught my attention. I know nothing about the author or publication, but this particular essay is largely consistent with my understanding the brain's approach to innovation.

For instance, Coker writes that "the first step in innovation is being able to make connections between unrelated things." Edward de Bono would wholeheartedly agree with this statement; in fact, one of his Lateral Thinking techniques, Random Word, is expressly designed to accomplish this. This technique forces a person to concentrate on two unrelated things and try to draw a connection between them.

A classic example is George Ballas' invention of the Weed Eater. One weekend, George needed to mow his lawn. He decided to wash his car first, so he drove to the carwash, but he was still thinking about mowing the lawn. As he was sitting in the carwash, watching the rotating nylon bristles scrub the dirt and grime from his car, his large lawnmowing project was still on his mind. And then, presto! His brain made a connection between spinning nylon bristles and lawnmowing, and the Weed Eater was born.

Coker also writes about the importance of perseverance to innovation. I agree, but not quite the way Coker means. He describes perseverance in execution: "It's important to try many ideas and endure many failures before finding the one that works" and blah blah blah. Yes, yes, that's fine, whatever.

More interesting, I think, is the role of perseverance in idea generation. The idea necessarily precedes its execution - so how many ideas do we need? Is one idea sufficient? Probably not. Maybe five? Ten? A hundred?

Brainstorming five or ten ideas is pretty easy. Coming up with 20 or 50 or 100 is significantly harder, but that's where the best ideas are probably hiding. After all, if the obvious idea were so good, you'd already be doing it, right?

Hence my assertion that perseverance is important. Don't stop when you have three or four ideas; keep going until you have 20 or 30 or 500. That is precisely why Edward de Bono invented Lateral Thinking - to help people think of large numbers of new ideas.

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