Innovation

I'm of the opinion that in order to innovate, one must reject the status quo. Innovation stems from dissatisfaction with status quo. Face it: if you're happy with the way things are, why change them?

I make this claim as axiomatic since by definition status quo—namely "the current state of things"—is the opposite of innovation, that is "creating something new."

One of my favorite quotes, one by Artemus Ward, goes "Why is this thus? What is the reason for this thusness?" This, to me, embodies the spirit of innovation: questioning the status quo—the "thusness"—in order to open oneself to a new perspective.

Now, one could (not unreasonably) get all "meta" and argue that a suitably innovative environment might be the status quo, and there might be some truth to that.

But realistically, there's an inhibiting effect brought about by the status quo: a systemic friction that dampens the desire to seek new perspectives and deepens the intellectual rut that forms from thinking one way about things over a period of time. Innovation means breaking free, casting off the yoke and shackles. Jumping out of the rut.

Breaking rules.

That's why, for purposes of pursuing innovative things, I like the following syllogism:

Rule 1: There are no rules
Rule 2: Ignore Rule 1

This apparent contradiction illustrates the "process" for creativity and innovation, namely, that there is not—nor can ever be—a predefined process that can effectively harness creativity. One does not—cannot—stipulate "today: be brilliant" or "first come up with a great idea, then move it to production." Creativity seldom runs on a schedule.

In essence, creativity needs an environment which goes against processes. Creation and innovation are both the act of doing new things; things that have not been done before. On the other hand, processes codify successfully doing the same thing repeatedly.

Now some might argue that the process—the rules if you will—can foster an environment that results in creativity, but that's not entirely accurate. You can creatively improve the procedures you follow, but that's still a bounded process, with naturally bounded outcomes. To completely unleash the creative process, you have to be, well, unleashed.

This is not to say that process is undesireable. In many cases, it is very important. When making shoes, or assembling automobiles, process is vital. You don't get consistently good shoes, or cars, or widgets, or whatever, unless you have a well defined process.

Moreover, as Robert Sutton points out, when it comes to flying a commercial airliner, or performing open-heart surgury, the last thing you want is for somebody to say "hey, I wonder what will happen if I do this...?"

But as highly skilled—and highly paid—as these professions are, they really have nothing to do with creativity or innovation. By the time it gets to these professionals, it is settled art. (It's the test pilot and clinical researchers that are doing the actual innovation.)

It is not inconceivable that—but for shortcomings of technology—both of these industries could eventually be completely mechanized and automated ... at least right up until things go wrong and the process checklist suddenly ends. It's at that point, when a human's ability to be spontaneous and improvise a solution comes into play—to be creative—is seen as vital.

In any event, for all of these process-bound activities, one can at best "innovate" (and I use the term guardedly, complete with scare quotes) around the edges, making marginal improvements in these processes. Seldom, if ever, will one have the opportunity of completely rewriting the rule book, abandoning the status quo. Innovation—true innovation—is revolutionary, while at best, procedural enhancements will be evolutionary. Not a bad thing, mind you: the Japanese auto industry is testimony to that. But the end game, the outcome, will still be making automobiles. Better automobiles, but automobiles. And only automobiles.

Yeah, so?

Okay, so at the turn of the previous century, the prevailing method of food preservation was by the ice box. What nowadays is an essential bit of gear for tailgate parties and car-camping trips before was in every house—and indeed, put on wheels to form long trains of "reefers" or refrigerator cars to carry produce across the country. A thriving industry, the Ice trade, was the cutting of lake ice during winter, storing the large blocks in ice houses through the warmer months, and delivering them to households for those ice boxes. 1Does this seem like the opening of a Disney movie?

The prospect of electification scared the entire industry: it represented the death-knell for those entrenched in the ice-box world view, and they fought it tooth and nail.

One particularly clever executive, however, took a different tack. He asked the question: "Look, are we an ice-box company, or a food preservation company?" He managed to pull his frame of mind, and that of his company, out of the intellectual rut the status quo had put them into, and actually survived the end of the "ice age" as a result. The Ice Trade perished altogether, because electrification proved a better means of manufactured "plant" ice.

Needless to say, those companies that failed to innovate failed to adapt to the changing market. Nobody remembers their names (well, maybe some historians do.)