Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Ordinary Innovation

In my relentless pursuit of debunking the idea of the lone innovator sitting in the garage creating the next mode of transportation or a faster way to cook a burrito, I would like to submit to you this thought shared with us by Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table:

"A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times."

Do you believe this? I do, and let me tell you why. For many years I have been stymied by the notion that new ideas come in a burst of brilliance that dazzles the mind and immediately sets you to writing down formulas, couplets, strategic plans or recipes. So in an effort to create the right scenario that would lead to innovation I would go to great lengths to . . .

1. Make sure the lighting was right

2. Read innovative writers

3. Find that creative place that seems to be dripping with new ideas

4. Build up expectations of what would come from my time of thinking

5. And the list goes on and on

It is a bit like the person who goes to the end of the world to find the world's smartest man. There is this expectation that if all of the situational elements are just right that you can force new ideas into existence. So many times I see leaders of organizations go away to plan and pray with the hope that this will happen. I see writers looking for just the right setting to create their masterpiece. But are we taking the right approach?

More and more I'm wondering whether the greatest innovations are ideas that slowly and quietly ooze into our lives as we work away at what God has called us to. It is much less exciting and it doesn't make nearly as good of a story, but I wonder if it isn't more a reflection of reality.

One of the reasons I am leaning towards this approach to innovation is that I am becoming convinced that the level of learning you need to define something new is much greater than most of us imagine. In a world that is flooded with information, we don't consume enough of it on any one topic to build a foundation to let us innovate. More and more I see innovations happening over time as we gain that key level of knowledge.

In Malcom Gladwell's latest book "Outliers" he talks about how anyone who has reached expert level in a field has had at least 10,000 hours of practice or experience. I think that innovation requires a similar amount of experience. That is why innovation is really rare and when it does happen it is usually a surprise to the world because the innovator has been quietly learning, thinking, processing, and developing the idea for a long time.

So as you consider this alternate way to view innovation, here is my question for you - What are you investing a significant time over a long period to learn and master? I think that there is where your innovation will arise from and I imagine that it will come at the most unexpected moment of your lifelong learning process.