The role of snowmobiles in innovation

Note: This post is part of larger series on innovation, going under the collective name of Innovation and Art of Random.

Innovation has become an idea arms race, an arms race that most of us cannot hope to win. We spend so much time trying to consume ideas, drinking from the innovation fire hose, that we have little time to devote to what really matters: synthesis.

When we’re focused on harvesting ideas from the environment around us—either inside or outside our organisations—we are, by definition, on the back foot. We must assume that we’re not the first to see an idea, when it’s discovered outside our organisation. Nor can we assume exclusivity on the ideas we generate. As Sun likes to point out, statistically all the smart people with the good ideas work for someone else.

My guitar teacher of some years back, Tom Fryer, had a bit of sage advice. It’s pointless to try to be original, as someone will always have had the idea before you. A more productive approach is to simply plow your own furrow; focus on the problems you want to solve, steal ideas shamelessly if they seem useful, and invent what you need to fill the gaps.

Tom has a good point. The challenge with being creative is in knowing what problems to solve, and bringing together old and new ideas to create a new solution. Hoarding ideas or worrying about their source, debating the worth of internally generated ideas against those sourced externally, misses the point when we have tools like open innovation at our disposal.

Success in innovation is driven by a smart approach to synthesis. Work to solve a problem. Take ideas from around you to incrementally building something new. Learn, tuning your approach as you go.

Take Sony’s Walkman as an example, an innovation which created the market for personal music devices.

The Sony Walkman was originally designed as a music player for couples, based on Akio Morita’s observation of teenagers lugging their radios with them on vacations (an incongruity) and came equipped with two headphone jacks and a recording facility. It even had a “hotline” button, partially overriding the sound from the cassette and allowing one user to talk to the other over the music.

Of course, nobody really used it like that and Sony was quick to see that most people used it as a personal, portable music player (unexpected) and redesigned it accordingly.

Snake Coffee

The Walkman wasn’t conceived and developed in response to a brilliant idea. Akio Morita noticed an incongruity in the market, which Sony created a new product to address. When they realized that the Walkman wasn’t being used as expected, the product was tweaked to align it with reality. As Peter Drucker pointed out with his seven sources of innovation, innovation usually has more prosaic drivers than brilliant ideas or shiny new technologies.

John Boyd

John Boyd

John Boyd called this process, creating snowmobiles. His area of interest was military strategy: the challenge of creating novel, unexpected and winning solutions when dealing with a rapidly changing and constantly evolving environment. Creating snowmobiles represented a thought experiment he used to challenge an audience near the start of his briefing on strategy.

The thought experiment goes something like this:

Imagine that you are:

  • on a ski slope with other skiers—retain this image,
  • in Florida riding in an outboard motorboat—maybe even towing water-skiers—retain this image,
    riding a bicycle on a nice spring day—retain this image, and
  • a parent taking your son to a department store and that you notice he is fascinated by the tractors or tanks with rubber caterpillar treads—retain this image.

Now let’s pull the:

  • skis off ski slope—discard and forget rest of image,
  • outboard motor out of motorboat—discard and forget rest of image,
  • handlebars off bicycle—discard and forget rest of image, and
  • rubber treads off toy tractors or tanks—discard and forget rest of image.

This leaves us with

  • skis,
  • outboard motor,
  • handlebars, and
  • rubber treads.

Pulling all this together, what do we have?

  • A snowmobile.


As Boyd points out, there are two distinct processes at work here. First we need to pull ideas apart and understand how they will work in different contexts (analysis), building a library of interesting tactics we can use in solving a future problems. Second, we need to put these ideas back together in new combinations (synthesis), providing us with the opportunity to understand how apparently unrelated ideas and actions can be connected to one another.

How do we create a situation where we can make snowmobiles?

We often strive for diversity, as we believe diversity brings with it a range of points of view, which in turn encourages innovation. This has prompted some organisations to search for T-shaped individuals: someone professional in one area, but with complementary skills. Their broad experience, so the theory goes, will enable them to look across a number of domains to harvest useful ideas. However, this does not address our core challenge: understanding which questions to ask, the questions which will driven the synthesis process.

The first step is take a mountain climbing approach to knowledge and ideas. At each stage in the innovation cycle we need to establish camp, scout the path ahead and then prepare our tools for the journey to the next camp further up the mountain. This requires a process of constant learning, and a willingness to explore new environments. Environments which might range from the various business functions, across technical and business domains to seemingly unrelated areas, such as John Boyd’s work on military strategy.

Low Cost IVF Foundation

Low Cost IVF Foundation

The Low Cost IVF Foundation is a good example of this approach. The program started with a clear goal in mind: of converting IVF from a luxury of the West into a tool for alleviating the public ridicule, accusations of witchcraft, loss of financial support, abandonment and divorce, not to speak of the shame and depression associated with being childless in the third world. At each innovation camp they scouted the path ahead, exploring the environments around them, identify the problems, and challenging the conventional assumptions about how they should be solved. Incrementally, over a number of iterations, they synthesised a new approach which radically cut the cost of IVF. While the journey might seem prosaic (much like Sony’s), the result is quite profound.

To support this approach to innovation, we need to become fluent in a wide range of environments, the second step. Fluency implies that we have sufficient experience in an environment to make understanding ideas automatic. We’re not devoting our time to basic comprehension. This creates the cognitive time and space to focus on understanding the connections between ideas, and their application to the task at hand. Fluency creates the time and space for synthesis.

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