Want to disrupt markets? Start by disrupting yourself.
The “Eureka!” moment is a real thing, but it’s widely misunderstood. Inspiration rarely strikes out of the clear blue, and sudden ideas are never fully formed. Work precedes and follows. “Creative collisions,” as we call them — finding unexpected or unorthodox solutions to seemingly intractable challenges — don’t occur in a vacuum or even in brainstorming sessions. As John Nottingham puts it, “Innovation is not a thing we do on Thursday. You live creativity. It’s not an event, it’s a process. Embrace it.”
The new year is when we strive to break old habits and live fuller, more productive lives. Companies can do the same. There are many steps that every organization can take to maximize its innovation potential. Here are our top suggestions.
1. Re-evaluate yourself
Innovation, like charity, begins at home. Your personal habits can have a profound impact on your ability to think creatively and work effectively. Sleep isn’t optional; when you don’t get enough the effect can be similar to intoxication. A lack of sleep can also ramp up your consumption of junk food, which in turn can induce daytime sleepiness. It’s a vicious cycle, leading to diminished creative capacity and declining productivity.
Movement is also essential. Walking can help you think, spending time in nature can realign your attitude and running literally makes you smarter. Exercise generally has far-reaching mental effects, including boosting neurotransmitter production and helping us cope with stress.
Almost as important as sleep, diet and exercise is a life outside the office. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskowitz came to regret the years he spent working almost non-stop, because looking back he saw that he was less effective. “You can do great things AND live your life well,” he writes. “You can have it all, and science says you should.”
2. Re-evaluate your organization
What does you organization do? For whom? Why? These questions may seem silly until you drill down to the most fundamental level. Amazon is widely considered a retailer first and foremost, but when you consider all its services, it’s a transportation company, or perhaps the world’s most daring logistics operation (“airborne fullfillment centers”?). SnapChat “has said that it thinks of itself as a camera company rather than a social network,” and that’s been vital to its rapid growth.
This is more than an academic exercise. Left unexamined, your notions about your identity, core competencies and capacity to change can hold you back, without your even realizing it. All businesses strive for efficiency, but processes can become so ingrained that no one ever questions whether other methods might yield useful results. A good habit is still a habit, and by definition nearly subconscious. Product innovation often requires business innovation as well.
3. Re-evaluate your understanding of the creative process
“I learned to write by looking at paintings in the Luxembourg Museum in Paris. …In the first paragraphs of Farewell, I used the word ‘and’ consciously over and over the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint.” That’s Ernest Hemingway, talking to New Yorker magazine in 1950. He instinctively grasped something crucial: inspiration can be found in unexpected places. The boundaries between disciplines are imaginary.
But trips to the museum and symphony are wasted if we can’t tune out distractions. According to neuroscientist Moshe Bar, to be creative, we need to think less, not more: “The capacity for original and creative thinking is markedly stymied by stray thoughts, obsessive ruminations and other forms of ‘mental load.’ Many psychologists assume that the mind, left to its own devices, is inclined to follow a well-worn path of familiar associations. But our findings suggest that innovative thinking, not routine ideation, is our default cognitive mode when our minds are clear.”
In an organization, chemistry matters. The first time they jammed together, in 1980, the members of R.E.M. wrote six songs in a few hours. “I’m not saying we were great,” recalls guitarist Peter Buck, “but we had something, and it was the interplay of our ideas.” We’ve written extensively about the importance of hiring, culture and even setting in fostering an ecosystem in which ideas can flourish.
4. Re-evaluate your definitions of success and failure
“Failure is an option here,” says Elon Musk of SpaceX. “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
Musk is not advocating recklessness. Neither are we, even for projects much simpler than landing rockets on barges. But innovation usually entails some risk — at the least, that your idea won’t work. As Jules Verne put it in A Journey to the Center of the Earth, “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” And it’s not enough to expect the unexpected; you need to be attuned to the new possibilities that a setback might present. Lots of famous movie moments were work-arounds. History is full of stories of people looking for one thing and finding something even more remarkable; recent examples include a battery that might last forever and a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s.
Innovation is a way of life. Resolve to live yours to the fullest.
Contact Nottingham Spirk to discuss how your organization can take innovation to the next level in 2017.
About us: Nottingham Spirk is a business innovation and product design firm with an unrivaled record of delivering disruptive consumer goods, medical devices, and packaging design solutions to market. We collaborate with Fortune 1,000 companies, funded start-ups and non-profit organizations to discover, design and execute product programs and strategic business platforms that will wow customers, grow markets and generate new revenue streams. Learn more about what makes us different here.