Innovation

“It’s not the things we look at, but the way we look at things”

The question is, how can we promote innovation on a regular basis and harness it throughout our professional lives for ourselves, or the collective benefit of our companies and our customers?

When we look at great innovations; The invention of the electric light by Edison, the development of the television by John Logie Baird or more recently the Macintosh by Steve Jobs. We could easily deduce that innovation is the result of hard work and the intuitive mind of one man (or woman). There are many examples of great innovations that originate from one individual, to quote Thomas Edison himself; “Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety percent perspiration”:

Betty Nesmith for example, who in 1951 had the idea to put some white tempera into her nail varnish and use the brush to correct typing errors. Of course, we now know this invention to be Tippex.

Earl Tupper made food storage containers. But when he met Brownie Wise the synergy of the two minds came together. Brownie proposed, that Earl should sell the containers at  ‘parties’ and as we all know, party selling made Tupperware into a household name.

Innovation itself is of course by no means new, the word ‘innovate’, can be traced back to 1440, where it comes from the Middle French word “innovacyon” meaning “renewal” or a new way of doing things. However, one of the classic problems with innovation is that, like the booster stage of a rocket, innovation often burns brightly for a short time, before tailing off and dying away. We can observe this phenomenon when we look at great innovators, often we see that there is a peak of their creative genius. Had Mozart or Buddy Holly or Jimi Hendrix lived longer would they have continued to be so innovative? In later life, some say the late Elvis was never quite the mover & shaker he was in his youth. The brilliant football career of George Best, also eventually was to burn out like a shooting star!

With these examples in mind, we may wonder, if creativity declines with experience? In fact it’s said that an individuals peak can come at any time in their life, and may even be reached twice, for example; Darwin wrote the origins of the species at the age of 50. Maurice Ravel composed his ‘Bolero’ at the age of 53, and Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States in 1981 at the age of 69 after previously being a successful actor, more reciently, Arnold Schwarzenegger has managed to master three careers in one lifetime, body builder, film star and now politician.

W. Somerset Maugham had this to say on the subject….“Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than the young”.

Clearly, when we can manage innovation, and innovate collectively, extra benefits occur, and the law of synergy kicks in (1+1 = 3). So it makes sense that we all need to exploit the power of the collective mind and to learn how to make better use of innovation and synergy, if we are going to continually innovate throughout our careers.

One way of creating more opportunities for innovation in the design process, is to be less formal in the way design companies and marketeers work together. In the past clients created strategy & designers designed – I believe that in today’s world things really have to be more flexible, after all, as Betty Nesmith showed, a good idea can come from anyone. Therefore, it becomes important for all participants in the process to understand the mechanics of creativity and innovation. To do this, it may be useful to examine how the process was defined in one of the earliest, and I believe still most valid, models, attributed to Graham Wallas in 1926, when he proposed a four-stage process:

Preparation (definition of issue, observation & study)

Incubation (laying the issue aside for a time)

Illumination (the moment when a new idea finally emerges)

Verification (checking it out)

Wallas’s model suggests that creative thinking starts with purposeful preparation and ends with analytical verification, suggesting that creative and analytical thinking are complementary. The implied theory behind this model also suggests that creative thinking is a subconscious process and cannot be wholly directed by the conscious mind. Freud also reasoned, in his original “The levels of consciousness theory*”, that our brains function on different levels. The conscious level, which is the receptor of information, the unconscious level, on the face of it dormant, but packed with information, and in between the preconscious level, which draws on both of the other levels. It’s this level that provides a major source for our insights and inspirations.

Understanding this, we might apply Sigmund Freud’s theory to the 4 generally accepted steps in Wallas’s creative process;  1 Preparation 2 Incubation 3 Illumination and 4 Verification, and propose how the creative process could pass through different levels of the conscious mind.

1 Information =  Conscious level (Intellectual area), Where we take in the details of the problem to be solved and define the objectives for success.

2 Incubation =  Low down in the preconscious level (Emotional / logic/ reasoning area), Where we give our brain time access it’s storage area, data bank and expose the problem to other influences.

3 Inspiration =  Higher up in the preconscious level (Emotional area), Where we give our right brain full access to our stored information and allow it to experiment and innovate without inhibitions.

4 Verification = Once again in the conscious level, where we check and analyse our innovations and measure them against the information and objectives we established in phase one.

Many of us have to innovate on a daily basis as part of our profession, therefore, knowing that the ability to innovate is enhanced when the full power of the brain is accessed (rather than just the conscious level), means we can create methodologies to maximise our ability to innovate.

Whether you are striving for individual or collective creativity, it is necessary to be aware that creativity is made more difficult in a hectic and stressful environment and that deliberately building a period of reflection and introspection into your thought processes (gained here in the incubation period), can be essential. For it’s only by employing all the different stages of the process that we give our brain the space to exercise the whole of our consciousness allowing us to promote pure innovative thought.

Rowland Heming©  rowlandheming.blogspot.com

* Search : “Freud’s The levels of consciousness theory” for various papers

One Comment

  1. Tom Huetz Tom Huetz says:

    Thank you Rowland. Now I can say I’ve learned something today! That’s something I ask my boys – “did you learn something new today?”

    Funny the expression “a light bulb just went off” to describe when one has an epiphany, an idea, when it took Edison countless attempts (over 10,000) to get the bloody bulb to work in the first place!

    While I was working on designs for a group of engineers, I was surprised how many good ideas came from this group. My prejudice was that they were a group focused on widgets and making them work, when in fact, the ideas for design of brochures, posters, interactive presentations, etc. were fabulous. It’s a lesson that remains with me to this day that a good idea can come from anywhere, or anyone.

    I believe that innovation can be grossly suppressed when we do not allow our minds to block out preconceived notions of right and wrong, can’t or won’t, rather than allowing the “why not?” to naturally occur.

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