Childhood readers and the art of random

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

Innovation can seem random. We’re dealing with so much change in our daily lives that we miss the long and tortuous journey an innovation takes from it’s first conception through to the delivered solution, causing the innovation to seemingly appear from nowhere. We’re distracted as we’re trying to cope with the huge volume of work our changing environment creates, adjusting to the new normal, while trying to find time to sift through the idea fire hose for that one good idea. However ideas are common, commoditized even, and our real challenge is to make connections.

As Peter Drucker pointed out: insight, the tacit application of knowledge is not a transferable good. The value we derive from innovation comes from synthesis, the tacit application of knowledge to create a new solution. The challenge is to find time to pull apart the tools available to us, recombining them to synthesis new (and hopefully innovative) solutions to the problems we’re confronting today.

While ideas may be cheap, the time and space needed to create insight are not. We need to understand our problem from multiple contexts, teasing out the important elements, bringing together ideas to address each element in the synthesis of an original solution. This process takes time, often more time than we can spare, and so we need to invest our time wisely. Which steps in this processes are the most valuable (or the least transferable), the steps we need to own? Which can we outsource, passing responsibility to partners, or even our social network? And is it possible to create time? Using technology to take some of the load and create the breathing room we need.

Dr. Khee Pang

Dr. Khee Pang

One of the best pieces of advice I picked up at university was from Dr. K. K. Pang, who unfortunately passed away in March 2009. Dr Pang taught circuit theory, which can be quite a frustrating subject. It’s common to encounter a problem in circuit theory which you just can’t find a way into, making it seemingly impossible to solve. Dr. Pang’s brilliant, yet simple, advice was “If you don’t like the problem, then change it to one you do like.”. Just start messing with the problem, transforming bits of the circuit at random until you find a problem that you can solve.

Fast forward to my current work, far removed from circuit theory, and I still find myself using this piece of advice at least once a week. It’s not uncommon to come across a problem, a problem with little direct connection to technology, that needs to be approached from a very different angle. When stuck, take a different angle, make it a different problem, and you might find this new problem more to you liking.

You often bump into the same problem in different contexts as you work across industries and geographies. Different contexts can necessitate a different point of view, making the problem look slightly different. This highlights other aspects of the problem that you might not have been aware of before, highlighting previously hidden assumptions or connections to other problems. However, while this cross industry and geography insight is a valuable tool, the time required to go spelunking for insight is prohibitive. We find ourselves spend too much decoding the new context, and too little teasing out the important elements.

Learning to read, something I expect we all did in our childhood, is a struggle for fluency. We work from the identification of letters and words, through struggling to decode the text, to a level of fluency that enables us to focus on the meaning behind the text. Being fluent means being good enough at identification and decoding that we have the time and space for comprehension.

The ability to change the problem in front of you is really a question of being fluent in a range of environments; understanding a number of doctrines. These might be different industries (finance, public sector, utilities …) domains (logistics, risk management, military tactics, rhetoric …) or even geographies (APAC, EU, US …) as each has its own approach. We need enough experience in an environment to be able to decode it easily. Generally this means in the trenches experience, focused on applying knowledge, allowing us to weed out the common place and find the interesting and new. But building fluency takes time though; we can’t afford to immerse ourselves in every possible environment that might be of interest.

For quite a few years (from back in the day when my email address had a .oz at the end) I’ve been collecting a network of colleagues. Each is inquisitive in our own way, each with our own area of interest or theme, covering a huge, overlapping range of doctrines, while always looking for another idea too add to our toolbox. With the world being small, or even flat, this network of like minds has often been the source of a different point of view, one which solves the problem I’m working on. More recently this network has been migrating to Twitter, making the shared conversation more dynamic and immediate. It’s small networks of like-minds like this which can provide us the ability to effectively outsource the majority of our analysis, spreading the effort amongst out peers and creating the time and space to focus on synthesis.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem: innovation relies on the synthesis, and the key to synthesis is in finding interesting problems to solve. An idea, no matter how brilliant, will not go far unless it results in a product or service the people want. Innovation exists out at the surface of our organisations, or at the production coal face. Just as with the breath strips example, interesting problems pop up in the most unexpected places. Our challenge is prepare ourselves so that we can capitalise on the the opportunity a problem represents. As a famous golfer once said:

Gary Player

Gary Player

The more I practice, the luckier I get.
Gary Player

The world around us changes so rapidly that innovation can seem random. The snowmobile was obvious to the people who invented it, as they worked via trial-and-error from the original problem they wanted to solve through to the completed solution; it didn’t leap from their brow as a fully formed concept. Develop your interests, become fluent in a wide range of relevant topics and environments, use your network to extend your reach even further, and look for interesting problems to solve. In a world awash with good ideas, when innovation relies on your ability synthesis new solutions by finding an new angle from which to approach old problems (possibly problems so old that people forgot that they had them), the key to success is to find our own focus and then use your own own interests to drive yourself forward while effectively leveraging your network and resources around you to take as much of the load as possible. Innovation is rarely the result of a brilliant idea, but a patient process of finding problems to solve and then solving them, and sometimes we’re surprised by how innovative our solutions can be.

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