One part structure, one part "out there"

By Caleb Dean

What is the formula for innovation?

Today on the radio show, This American Life, there was the story of a scientist and a sound expert working together to find a cure for cancer by identifying and testing certain tones that would kill cancer cells without harming surrounding cells. This uncommon partnership has shown extreme promise of finding a cure through this method and yet has not been able to prove their findings. Much of this is due to the mental models that each man holds. The sound expert is open to the promise of outside the box ideas and sees progress as proof, while the scientist must follow strict protocol to produce any results that are worthy of his peers. Arguably, neither would get as far as they have without each other and the skills and mental models they bring.

I have seen this scenario in many teams that I have worked with and worked on. It usually starts out like magic. There is a buzz when passionate people driven to find a solution get together. When I started my business 3 years ago I liked to refer to this phase as a time when we had the naive audacity to do whatever  the hell we wanted. It's fun and also dangerous.

The next phase is usually defined by some level of conflict. This has the potential to break a team but also allows for the opportunity for each individual to dig deep and work through underlying issues. This is where it's important to remember that solving problems is a challenge, you like challenges, conflict is challenging, and the team was formed with a passion and a challenge to find a solution. Conflict can be scary, it is also crucial.

The third phase, hopefully, is where you are able to work through differences and find a balance for working together. This is where structure and out there thinking find harmony and again see the best of each other.  Hopefully this lasts for a while before you enter phase two again.

What I believe to be the most important moment in this process is the moment directly following the deepest of conflict. There's a glimmer of hope in the distance and a light goes off in your head. This is a beautiful moment when your drive is recharged and you can see clearly what has happened, why, and what comes next. This is where you get your audacity back. This is where innovation happens.

This process is not limited to teams. In fact, this is the exact scenario that I went through while studying abroad. This is the process that defines the stages of culture shock. First you are enthralled by all things new. Second, you don't have a clue why this culture does anything the way they do. And finally, you find a balance and are able both enjoy and function.

The important moment I spoke of earlier is something I have witnessed when working in communities who are struggling with extremely tough issues, wicked issues. Some of these communities have been engulfed in conflict and this moment occurs after they believe their community has hit rock bottom and that something must be done to avoid what had happened. If this moment can be captured and leveraged, scaled and spread, these communities have the ability to make profound change and find innovative approaches to solving these wicked problems.

Everyone is talking about innovation. The word is everywhere. Innovation and the ability to create, solve problems, and design new products and efficient systems is seemingly what every company and organization strives for. I read two articles this week in Harvard Business Review about innovation and the barriers that companies face while working to integrate "it" into their culture.

I also read an opinion piece signaling the death of design thinking (a process that has helped companies innovate) and another rebutting that statement.

So, what is the right formula? Are we anywhere near finding the proper and most effective system or structure to allow for innovation?

I believe innovation is much like sustainability as it is a process rather than a goal.

Human beings, thanks to our large brains, use culture to adapt to new challenges. Our collective intelligence grows and our values morph as we move through time.

Culture is always changing and culture is always innovating. Some more than others and some better than others. Not only do the fittest of individuals survive, the fittest of cultures survive, they sustain.

I believe we are in a constant process of innovating to sustain and sustaining to further innovate. It's a constant push and pull and between the forces of consistency and change, rooted and airborne, structure and "out there" thinking.

As we strive to instill the process of innovation in the culture of our businesses and communities I hope that we be aware of the moment that hope seems reasonable again and when the marriage of rooted structure and a crazy idea make sense and is visible.

I don't have the formula but I believe that innovation is a constant force as well as a process that cannot be forced.  Innovation  is something that must be given the space to grow and is something that is happening all around us.

An innovative idea is allowing me to finish this post at 30 thousand feet flying from Portland to Boston. And perhaps we'll need another innovative idea if we realize the impacts of sending wifi signals 30 thousand feet into the air across our entire country or when we simply want it to work better. 

Caleb DeanComment