Tuesday, July 07, 2015

What Douglas Adams knew about innovation

I'm a huge fan of Douglas Adams and his four part trilogy including the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe.  I was such a huge fan that I convinced my son to read the books, and now he and I both know that 42 is the answer and we never go anywhere without a towel.  If the previous sentence doesn't mean much to you, go read the books.  They are worth it, believe me, for their humor, their typical British stiff upper lip response to the word and the paradoxes like the Improbability Drive.  But to me, Adams understood something about people and how they think that matters a great deal to innovation.  This is illustrated in perhaps the best way when Ford Prefect (a leading character and noted raconteur in the novels) describes to Arthur Dent (the hapless average guy who is caught up in an intergalatic space adventure) how to fly.  Dent, who is a simple earthling just introduced to the mysteries of space and time, doesn't know how to fly, at least not without the assistance of an airplane or some other mechanical device.  Prefect explains that flying is easy.  It's simply a matter of "throwing yourself at the ground and missing".  Prefect goes on to explain that it's the act of missing the ground that presents the difficulties.

The Segue

So, one might reasonably ask, what does a comedic science fiction novel about the destruction of Earth for an inter-galatic bypass have to do with the very important and serious work of corporate innovation?  I believe that what Prefect was telling Dent has direct meaning to innovators, that is, to be willing to suspend disbelief for even just a few moments, and wait to observe what happens next.

To some extent, we can't fly because we KNOW we can't fly, and we all know how throwing ourselves at the ground will end.  Badly, with an abrupt and painful stop at the end.  Because we know the result and we've seen the play before, we know what the end is like and aren't willing to participate.  The same goes with innovation.  Because we've experienced poorly defined and poorly managed innovation, or because we've had one naysayer in the team who shut down idea generation or one manager who ruled out interesting ideas, we aren't willing to suspend disbelief for even one second, so all the ideas and all the discussion revolves around narrow incremental ideas which are easily demonstrated to reflect existing concepts.  The problem is that really good ideas are available, but mostly only for teams willing to suspend disbelief, and who are willing to take the risks to create something new.

The acceptance of the impossible

Prefect goes on to note that missing the ground is difficult but not impossible.  He tells Arthur that it's helpful to be distracted at the moment of impact so that you aren't thinking about the impact or the pain.  Prefect instructs Arthur that when by luck he does manage to find himself flying that he should ignore all the rational consideration of weight and gravity and just remain flying.  There is real value for innovators in this argument.  First, we innovators have to release the chains that bind us to reality.  We have to release ourselves from the tyranny of today, the boundaries of budgets, the constraints of cost.  If we allow these things to tie us to the Earth, we'll never reach the stage where good and interesting ideas are possible.  Once, and if, we allow ourselves to accept the impossible and we shed our thinking barriers, we can create some really interesting new connections and ideas, but only as long as we collectively accept the impossible.

I've had the good fortune to work with a few teams that were able to truly release the bonds that tied them to today's troubles, difficulties and barriers, and were able to gain new insights and create truly interesting ideas.  This experience is powerful, but can only be sustained if everyone is willing to accept the impossible, even temporarily.  Of course this is an artificial and temporary state, eventually burst by time constraints, a demanding call from an executive or an insistent email inbox.  But the power and insight that is available if the innovation team is willing to truly attempt to "fly", releasing the things they "know" and expect and instead focusing on the nearly impossible.

The Wisdom of Children

The reason children are so creative and we adults are so constricted in our thinking can be summed up in one word:  experience.  As adults we bring all of our lived experience to bear in any situation, quickly assessing what can go right or wrong, who is a "winner" or loser, what will and won't be allowed.  Kids don't do that.  They wonder why not?  While we adults expect any potential barrier to stop us.  Experts (and we adults are experts at a lot of life) bring all of their knowledge and experiences to bear.  We KNOW what to expect and aren't willing or able to ignore that knowledge to have a chance to experience something new or different.  To innovate we've got to be willing to put aside that knowledge and experience to discover something new and different.  We innovators have to be a lot more child-like in our approach to innovation, full of wonder and possibility rather than constrained by rules and experience.

In the end, Arthur Dent does learn to fly.  Not well, and his mind is constantly at war with itself over what's possible and impossible.  Just read about the Improbability Drive to understand this.  But perhaps because everything he experienced was so unusual, so improbable that it opened his mind up to at least being willing to accept things that were strange or unusual, while most of us work day in and day out to keep things exactly as they "should be", rather than what they could be.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:10 AM


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