Monday, August 02, 2010

Weirdly, Wildly Pragmatic

I've come to the conclusion that innovation is so difficult for many businesses because there's a big gulf in perspectives and capabilities that are required.  The people who are really good at sensing new opportunities, identifying new trends and creating new things are often so hip, so daring and so different that their ideas can't or won't become part of the mainstream easily or quickly.  In the case of artists, designers and other really creative types, it could be that they don't care to "scale up" their concepts, or simply don't know how.  Their art is for them, their friends and colleagues, and those that "get it".  On the other hand, most businesses are populated by people who've had the uniqueness and creativity bred out of them, so that everything must look like what the business has done previously, or at least resemble what another competitor is doing.  Frankly, it's not innovation if someone in your business is already doing it.  It may be new to you, but it's not new to the world.

I was thinking about the wild, wonderful and experiential side of innovation after reading the NY Times yesterday, specifically an article about Todd Selby.  Todd is a photographer of fashion who has built a network of other photographers from around the world who are sharing their photo shoots.  These folks have a unique sensibility - an artists' view of the world, but there's something here for those of us in innovation as well.  These folks are communicating in their own language - the photograph - but they are also sending signals about what's new, what's important.  They form a community of people documenting their lives out in the open, and they are telling us - no, screaming at us in pictures - what's interesting and important.  To many of us, this seems weird or crazy.  To the people within Todd's community, it seems completely normal.  In fact, people are clamoring to share their photographs and join the community. 

There's an imagined gulf between the folks in Todd's community and many of us in the "business world", one we ought to bridge quickly if we want to become more innovative.  We in the gray-box cubicles of corporate America need to get linked in to what is happening out on the "edge" - out where we aren't comfortable and things aren't predictable.  I don't know Todd but I'd venture to say that his take is that his colleagues are just demonstrating their ideas and their art - they may not even think of themselves as "edgy", but I'm sure a lot of corporate America does.  But people who are creating and experimenting with art, with design, with experience are creating the next evolutions of our products, services and expectations. 

We in our gray cubicles need some of what Todd's community offers - a different way to look at things, a new perspective, the ability to ask "why not" rather than "where's it been done before".  Our customers want new thinking, new ideas and new paradigms, which can't be discovered in the corporate boardroom.  There are simply too many ghosts of managers past who haunt those corridors.  Those of us in gray flannel khakis need to get out and experience what artists and designers are creating, the ideas they are pursuing and expounding, and bring back the best of those ideas to what will admittedly be a resistant corporate culture.

Good ideas are almost never generated solely by one person or one isolated team, but are the fruit of lots of pollenization.  If we only visit the same sources for ideas, those approved vendors or "reasonable" concepts, then the possibility of cross-pollenization doesn't exist - and believe me, we need it.  We need more wild, weird, wonderful trends and ideas as catalysts for our thinking.  The information, people and communities are out there, somewhere just outside the corporate offices of glass and steel.  Those interesting communities may not look like corporate America, but they'll drive a lot of the new trends, fashions and ideas that we'll be implementing in the next few years.  Why not learn about them and incorporate those ideas now?

As you become open to new sources and new ideas, your pragmatic side will pay benefits as well.  Recognizing new trends and valuable ideas is one thing, but building the concepts that reach your consumers in a way that's compelling and valuable is another.  This is something most firms are actually good at - taking an idea and making it resonate with consumers. Thus, you need innovation that is both weird and wild, as well as eventually pragmatic, for success.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:58 AM


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