I read a lot about what people have to write about innovation, particularly here in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the larger Caribbean. It’s a global issue, of course, where Silicon Valley faces increased criticism for being divorced from reality. In Trinidad and Tobago, I’ve seen talk of innovation with a prominent and ubiquitous software logo prominent in the background, I’ve heard people talking about the need for innovation.
And I see people doing largely the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, something Albert Einstein once defined as insanity. Arguments are made about how things have changed, how with this new product and this new knowledge unspecified innovation will arise.
It’s an old story told before I started in the software industry, and it will likely continue after I’m long gone. Under the surface, it’s the reinvention of language by marketing departments, much like ‘smart mobs’ was a novelty rebranding of ‘collective intelligence’. Reinventing the same thing is not inventing.
“We trained hard—but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while actually producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”
– Charlton Ogburn
In the end, one cannot force innovation as one would a bowel movement or you get the same result, hemorrhoids and all.
Beyond The Box.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase, ‘thinking outside the box’, or used it, it might be worth knowing the history of the phrase. It’s about being creative with what is available and using it beyond what most others would because they’re limited to a framework – a framework of 9 dots.
We like frameworks. They make things easy for us, but they also create framing – where we do not think beyond the frame, much as we acknowledge anything outside of a frame has nothing to do with a painting or picture. This is false, of course, as what is outside the frame of that art affects how the art is seen – the context within which the art exists, and part of the frame’s job is to make that boundary visible and aesthetically pleasing.
Everything is framed, and framing is a powerful thing because it implicitly frames our expectations. It also leads to what is known as ‘availability’, where if something keeps getting pushed as a solution we reach for that hammer even when we’re dealing with a phillip-head screw.
To think outside the box, we have to think outside the frameworks. To think beyond the frameworks, we have to explore beyond those frameworks and see what’s outside the scope of the issue. Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most prodigious innovators, would go outside and stare at the sky, wondering why it was blue and actually figuring it out. Thus the phrase, “blue sky thinking”.
Framing works against innovation in so many ways, and only helps in one: It defines what is inside the frame, and in that way, defines what is outside of it. A shift in focus is needed beyond the frame, and that requires knowledge well outside of that frame. It requires the context. If everyone is reading the same books, seeing the same shows, seeing the same news, it falls to the individual to look at things differently.
This is why I’ve often disagreed with people who say that money needs to be spent on innovation. Moaning for money is a tragic attempt at a solution when someone has what they think is a great idea. If that innovation doesn’t have an audience willing to listen, it simply doesn’t matter.
Beyond that innovative spark, those eureka moments, comes the hard work of making something that makes money, that saves money, or that otherwise contributes value. There’s a tendency to forget the latter because the world is presented to us in dollar signs. The amount of money spent on a problem is a poor indicator on whether a problem will be resolved. We humans, for example, will say that a flooded area had millions of dollars of damage, but that says nothing about how much it affects lives.
In the end, innovation isn’t what you get from following the same paths or playing within frameworks. New paths aren’t created by traveling the same roads, innovative solutions don’t come from someone else’s framework, and doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result remains insanity.