Whenever I have the opportunity to lead a group in a creative workshop for the first time, I typically start the session with a specific creative exercise: The Ultimate Desk. Just as it sounds, the exercise challenges the participants to design the ultimate desk. Money is no object, production is not an obstacle, even the laws of physics can be discarded to accomplish the goal. While the results are wildly different, there is inevitably one characteristic that remains the same in virtually every solution:
They start with a desk.
Despite the reality of the restrictions placed upon them (or lack thereof), almost everyone starts with a tabletop of some form. The exercise never instructs that a tabletop is required, in fact it takes careful steps to purposely avoid the implication. The genesis of a desk is entirely implied by the creator based on the word 'desk.' The participants heard the word 'desk' and naturally started with a tabletop, choosing to attach improvements to this beginning. Those improvements are wonderfully creative, everything from lounges and massage chairs to HDTVs and sushi chefs, but they are exactly that, improvements. The problem to solve was never about the improvements but rather the purpose. We shouldn’t be asking ourselves, “What can we add?” but rather, “What function does it perform?” This is the difference between improvement and innovation.
Whether we’re marketing directors, account supervisors, business coordinators or CEOs, we all covet innovation. We want to generate ideas that affect behavior and, ultimately, consumerism that supports our interests. We challenge our processes, analyze the competitive landscape, encourage creative problem-solving and refine logistics. Within our power, we take every step necessary to innovate, to solve the problem in a novel way. Everything except changing the problem.
We have grown into a generation of attachers, solving the same problem in every manageable way. True innovation, however, can’t be found in solving the problem differently. It’s found in changing the problem. We get so comfortable with the act of problem-solving that we miss the opportunity to truly innovate. Instead of attaching something new to the same desk, we need to ask ourselves what purpose a desk serves and start from the answers to that question. Innovation starts with bucking the trend of 'attachism'. Here’s how:
Our lives are filled with problems to be solved. The principles of adult learning tell us that adults typically only solve the problem immediately in front of them, and only to the degree that the problem is removed from their immediate involvement so they can move on to other problems. In short, we’ve become reactionary. Instead of thinking through each problem, we react by relying on experience. We don’t question the knowns, only the unknowns. Innovation, however, starts with a conscious effort to stop reacting and take new inventory of the real problem to be solved. If we’re blinded by what we know, we’ll never see what we don’t.
Question the question
Once we’ve awoken from our unconscious state of reaction, we need to start separating what we know from what we need. Often, we solve problems with historical reference rather than fresh input. Breaking down the problem to reach its core becomes paramount. In the desk exercise, the question isn’t what we can attach to the desk to make it better, but rather what purpose the desk serves. When we question the question and take inventory of the actual restrictions of the problem instead of the restrictions we imply, we open ourselves up to greater possibilities.
Innovation never comes without a price. One of the primary reasons we fall back on what we know rather than what we don’t is that what we know has already been proven to work. True innovation is a process of failure, lots and lots of failure. New ideas need testing, they need prototyping, they need an understanding that invention by its very nature is a violent, messy act riddled with failure. The management of this failure is vital to seeing innovation through. Our failure tolerance must be high if we intend to truly innovate. We may fail hundreds of times before seeing success. Understand that failure is inevitable and a natural part of the process and you’ll learn to endure through the valleys that form the mountain.
Innovation is the true consequence of creativity. If we solve problems for a living, and few of us don’t, we benefit greatly from innovative directive. Be careful to solve the right problems and you’ll see more innovation in your process.