Eureka! When we have a problem, this is the ‘Ah Ha’ moment that we all hope for. A flash of brilliance that saves the day, the project, or even our job!
Going back to Archimedes, innovation is replete with examples of this somewhat mysterious, but extremely useful event. For example, one of Einstein’s key insights in developing special relativity came to him during a discussion with a friend over coffee, and Kekule’s insight into the structure of benzene came to him in a dream.
At first glance, these may seem to be examples of insight coming from nowhere. But in reality, even Einstein probably couldn’t have come up with special relativity without some background reading in physics! All ideas have to come from somewhere!
Our Smart Unconscious: That Einstein wasn’t consciously aware of how he made the connection on that day simply reflects that a lot of the work our brain does goes on below our threshold of consciousness. This ‘behind the scenes’ thinking is actually common. It is why we can drive home from work daydreaming and lost in thought, sometimes barely remembering the trip. The complicated, but relatively routine business of driving is mostly handled by our personal autopilot, which only bothers the ‘pilot’ if something unusual happens. We may not be able to double task as much as we think, and it is still a horrible idea to text and drive, but while we are thinking consciously about one thing, there are a lot of other relatively routine things our brain can manage in the background. And when a Eureka insight hits us out of the blue, the connections that made it happen almost certainly occurred below our awareness.
Making the Implicit Explicit: This is really important for innovation, because most of us don’t have ‘Ah-Ha’ moments as often as we would like. However, if we can understand the unconscious processes that lead to these moments, it is possible to create conditions where they occur more often. We may never get to ‘Ah-Ha’ on demand, but we may increase the number of genuine breakthrough ideas we have when facing difficult problems.
Great Artists Steal: One way to understand more about how these insights happen is to examine examples where the process does bleed into our consciousness. Artists and musicians are a good place to start, as they routinely steal ideas from each other, and then adapt or blend these inspirations to create something new. Sometimes this happens unconsciously, as with Sam Smiths Grammy winning adaption of Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down, but often it is more deliberate: For example, Picasso’s declared “Great Artists Steal”, and adapted and blended influences from everything from Impressionism to African sculpture to become one of the most innovative people of the 20th Century.
In science and technology this process is often more opaque. The culture of intellectual property rightly discourages the direct stealing of ideas. However, in reality, nearly all technical breakthroughs stand on the shoulders of past achievements. This does not mean copying or plagiarism, simply that one insight leads to another. Einstein would have struggled with relativity without Newton’s calculus, while the discovery of DNA was enabled by a plethora of diverse science that went before it. The ‘Ah-Ha’ involves taking existing knowledge, and adapting, blending and building productively on it to create new and better. Of course, we do this all of the time when we use our training and experience to solve problems, but the magic Ah-Ha comes when we make a big jump, and connect things that other smart people working in our area haven’t. So how can we catalyze this?
Standing on the Shoulders of the Same Giants: Unless we have an Einstein’s or Francis Crick on our team, then connecting the dots based on information commonly available within our expert domain typically leads to incremental innovation, and/or to competitors all coming up with the same idea at about the same time. This latter effect is called multiple discovery, and is experienced by even the greatest innovators. Newton and Leibnitz with calculus, and Darwin and Wallace with natural selection are famous examples, but it also happens to us mere mortals! If we are all standing on the shoulders of the same giants, we tend to see the same opportunities, and at roughly the same time.
Standing on the Shoulders of Different Giants. Of course, incremental innovation is important, and we don’t want to miss out on multiple discovery. If we do, competition will leave us in their dust. But if we want to jump ahead of the pack, and come up with Ah-Ha’s that nobody else has, then one way to do it is to stand on the shoulders of different giants to everybody else. One of the best ways to do this is to look for inspiration in unexpected places, and to make connections with domains that may initially be surprising, or unobvious, but that provide insight that we wouldn’t get if we stuck with the ‘usual suspects’.
For example, James Dyson stole the air purification system from a sawmill, and turned it into the highly lucrative Dyson Vacuum. While everyone else was trying to improve filtration, he recognized that that standard technology in a sawmill separated dust from air. This could then be adapted to deliver a disruptive innovation that reinvented an entire vacuum cleaner industry. Another example is George de Mestral’s invention of Velcro, a game changer that he ‘stole’ from the micro-structure of the common burr. Both of these examples were somewhat serendipitous, Dyson wandered into a sawmill, and had an Ah Ha moment, and de Mestral had his moment of insight when he observed burs attached to his dogs fur. However, they show the value of reaching across domains for disruptive innovation.
But how do we tap into a broad enough range of knowledge to make these surprising connections relatively routine? Part of the challenge lies in looking in the right places, which can be largely solved by searching for inspiration where there is a huge amount of pre-existing innovation, such as the military, medicine, or as in de Mestrals’ case, nature.
Another way to do this is to build teams full of people like expert generalists, T-shaped Innovators, or polymaths. These are people who know a lot of different things, and are good at diffuse thinking and at breaking mental fixation. This allows them to naturally frame problems at a sufficiently abstract level, and then use analogy to make surprising, but useful connections between different domains. For example, Dyson saw that separation, and not filtration was the answer to his problem, which allowed him to connect the sawmill and the vacuum. De Mistral, that the strong but reversibly attached functionality of the bur was an answer to attaching and at the appropriate time, removing clothing.
Democratizing Genius? However, polymaths are in relatively short supply, and even the most diverse thinking individuals have a limit on what they know. So how can we democratize this process, and make everyone more like a Dyson or a de Mestral?
There are several ways to approach this. We can use analogy and knowledge representation to make more abstract problem definition to make connections easier. And we can look in very targeted ways for rich sources of pre-existing innovation, like medicine, the military, or nature.
Go Big! We can also go big, and instead of having a relatively small number of people who know an awful lot, use crowd sourcing to tap into the enormous aggregate knowledge of large numbers of people. This makes the ‘pot’ of knowledge we draw from huge, as well as increasing the chances of finding natural analogous thinkers.
New Challenges: However, this does create a different set of problems. Lots of ideas means finding really big Ah-Ha’s can be like looking for a golden needle in the proverbial haystack.
Voting is one approach to solving this. It can be effective, especially for ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ ideas – concepts that while not obvious before somebody says them, make great sense in hindsight. People will rally around these ideas.
Finding Diamonds in the Rough: But what happens if the big idea is not quite so obvious? Or it is so revolutionary that it requires nurturing? Or if the person who had it is not a good communicator?
There is no silver bullet to solve this, but this is a really good reason to very actively manage a crowd-sourcing event. Don’t just rely on voting, but also actively look for hidden gems, and build on or reframe them if they are poorly articulated. Those running a session often have more time than participants, and can use it to hunt down and elevate diamonds in the rough.
The Tyranny of Satisfycing: Humans are also biased towards running with the first good enough idea they have. It is called satisfycing in Behavioral Economics, and in most situations it works very well for us. If you’ve solved the problem, why keep looking? However, a spark of brilliance could have been just around the corner. I suspect that Steve Jobs did not tolerate a lot of satisfycing, but how can we build this into crowd sourcing? There are a number of ways to do this, including creating waves of ideation that take out satisfycing solutions early, and challenge teams to stretch in subsequent waves. Or one of my favorites lies in very thoughtful problem definition. Framing a problem at a slightly more abstract level, as discussed above, encourages people to automatically connect more diverse domains, and make more surprising connections. So if we had been Dyson crowd sourcing vacuum cleaning, we would have been more likely to find the saw-mill if we’d framed the question as “how to separate dirt from air without losing suction”, rather than how to stop filters clogging, or asking for a better filtration system. This sounds obvious, but we have a real tendency to define problems in terms of our own knowledge and experience, whereas one of the great potential benefits of crowd sourcing is that it enables us to tap into a much wider range of expertise.
About the Author:
Founder of Pete Foley Innovations, Pete is P&G veteran for over 25 years, spending the past 9 years applying psychology and behavioral science insights to innovation, design, shopper psychology and holistic marketing. He is an experienced speaker and workshop leader as well as a serial innovator with well over 100 granted or published patents. He can be contacted at @foley_pete, email@example.com, or www.mindmatters.com