A genius. The eureka moment. Mention innovation and that's the model that probably comes to mind. The lore is exceptional intellect driving a flash of insight that's equal parts sudden, unpredictable and unexplainable. For those who yearn for innovation to solve the world's most vexing problems, such an opaque path is both unmanageable and unreproducible.
Fortunately, observations of real-world innovation show that the genius-as-great-innovator paradigm is wrong. Holding on to it is an anchor that sinks attempts to uncover new value.
It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. ~ Einstein
Consider the persistence and discipline a detective needs to solve intractable cases. Any prejudgment might lead to a resource-exhausting quest in the wrong direction. Overlooking a seemingly meaningless detail is a potential path to failure.
Detective Joe Friday in the decades-old TV series Dragnet used the iconic line, "Just the facts, ma'am". But detectives are dealing with people. Sure the facts and forensics matter, but developing a deep and intimate understanding of everyone involved and impacted can be the difference maker. That's especially true since the facts are often limited and being actively obfuscated.
As the investigation moves along, hunches emerge and evolve. By gathering supporting evidence they're either validated or rejected. Either result is a success since they both sharpen the investigation's focus.
Finally, in what may be experienced as a moment, an answer emerges. The work of proving it beyond a reasonable doubt begins.
It is, above all, more a matter of persistence than epiphany ~ Duncan Watts, Principal Researcher at Microsoft
How Does This Help My Team Become More Innovative?
Become more innovative by swapping out the genius-as-innovator model with one that centers on the methods of a detective
It's the mindset of the detective, not that of the genius, most closely reflects the process that underpins innovation.
Want breakthroughs? Change mindsets. Have your team model the detective's process. Collect evidence without prejudgement. Doggedly pursue an intimate, beyond-the-numbers understanding of everything or everyone involved. Seek advice from experts in other disciplines. Persist. Connect the dots. Cross functional boundaries. Connect the dots again in a different way.
You can't plan for it or know when it'll arrive, but the answer will emerge.
Even beyond the innovation domain, research shows that the idea of genius is most generously assessed as problematic. Maybe there are no geniuses, only great detectives.
Maybe there are no geniuses, only great detectives
A few of the innumerable posts and quotes underscoring the validity of this shift in mindset:
"the image of AI research progressing with a series of unexpected “eureka” breakthroughs is wrong. There is no historical precedent for such moments; instead we’re seeing a lot of fast and accelerating, but still incremental progress." ~ Andrej Karpathy, a PhD candidate at Stanford, Inside OpenAI
"P&G has taken great efforts over the last years to become “noticers.” They send out researchers to actually live with consumers in their homes. They film people performing normal household tasks or taking care of their beauty and hygiene needs. They try to notice the little frustrations, the unsolved problems or inefficiencies, the needs that customers don’t even know they have yet. And then they look for smart ways to innovate around those consumer insights." ~ Rowan Gibson, Author of "The 4 Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking", Power Your Creative Thinking With the 4 Lenses of Innovation
"defining a problem clearly and completely represents 90 percent of the difficulty in innovation." ~ former chief engineer at Rolls-Royce, CTO of consulting agency Blackswan
"Research (look high and low), listen (to everyone in all your networks), and focus (filter your ideas). Repeat." Alexa von Tobel, 2 Simple Tricks that Unlock Innovation
"I have my students go to the local shopping center for an assignment. They go into a whole bunch of stores and look at them with fresh eyes. We put together a detailed lab for them: Is the door open or shut? What is the font of the store’s name? How long does it take for someone to come and greet you? How high are the ceilings? What are the floors made of? That's the soundtrack? What does it smell like?" ~ Stanford innovation scholar Tina Seelig, How Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, And Maria Popova Got More Creative
I am on the edge of mysteries and the veil is getting thinner and thinner. ~ Louis Pasteur