Innovation is a natural result of being human

Our world is faced with a never-ending list of problems we’d all like solved. Some are massive public health and environmental issues that overwhelm us with their complexity. Some are daily nuisances that require simple adjustments in order to put things right. Big or small, complex or simple, when someone makes an improvement to a process, practice, tool or service, he/she is being innovative. Innovation is a natural result of being human. We humans are well-designed to solve problems and adapt to changes in our environment by actively “messing” with the resources we have on hand to improve our condition.

Caught in the rain (Darrell Wong/Fresno Bee)

Watch anyone adjust to an unexpected weather “situation” and you will see what I mean about innovation being core to human nature. People make hats and coats out of plastic bags or newspapers, wrap odd things around them to keep warm, and are suddenly willing to lose major style points when caught unprepared. One time my daughter came home from school and was locked out of the house. The day had been warm and sunny, so she had no coat, just a t-shirt and shorts. As the sun went down and it got colder, she got pretty uncomfortable. By the time I pulled into the driveway after work, she was huddled in a beach towel she had scrounged from the clothesline, and had buried herself under the cushions of our patio furniture. That’s making the most of the resources around you to improve your situation!

Another kid might have been curious about “alternative home entry methods” and found that the second floor porch door was unlocked. But in order to implement that strategy, she would have to be confident in her climbing abilities and weigh the discomfort of being cold against the risk of falling and getting seriously hurt. Given the low threat of hypothermia (her condition was uncomfortable, but not life threatening) I think she made a wise choice with the cushions and towel approach.

Innovation is not about making wild bets on the future or being a whacky creative who dreams fanciful ideas. It’s a careful assessment of where you are versus where you want to be, followed by a series of actions to close that gap. It doesn’t hurt to inject fanciful imagination (I’m sure my daughter was dreaming about a big warm fire or a fluffy comforter wrapped around her), because in those dreams we find the seeds of ideas we can actually implement.  Check out my previous post for a definition of these core skills.

Children are a great source of insight on our natural propensity for innovation. With less concern for negative social consequences, they are built to imagine and explore, and they do it all the time. My son plays with LEGOs on a near constant basis, and it’s amazing to watch his deep level of engagement as he sorts through hundreds of tiny plastic pieces to find just the right one for his latest project.

He’s built many LEGO models by following the prescribed approach in the instructions (he calls the booklets “maps”). His experience with those pre-built models has given him many core components to build on as he invents new structures. He knows how wheels go together, where a driver might sit, how to build a wing from scratch, and how to make a tower that won’t fall down. Mixing and matching these underlying components is a great way to jump-start a new idea or accidentally discover that there are more ways to build a spaceship than the “maps” tell you.

The keys in his natural innovativeness are his willingness to explore and his quick adjustment and continued effort when things don’t work out as imagined. When a structure is not built to handle real play, the feedback is immediate… it falls apart! His natural desire to play out-weighs his frustration with poor construction, so he keeps going.  But there are many times when he gets stuck, and in those moments the “magic” ingredient of innovation comes into play.  Humans are social, and we have a natural desire to help each other, so it’s not surprising that he asks for help almost immediately when he is stuck or frustrated.

The magic ingredient of innovation: asking for help

Sharing your problem with someone else when you are “stuck” brings new ideas and a renewed sense of excitement about what “could be”. When my son can’t figure out how to connect two awkward structures he asks his older sister (or basically anyone who’s within his vocal range) for help. At this moment he is ripe for coaching (motivated to complete his vision, frustrated by his own abilities to pull it off). I call “asking for help” the magic ingredient of innovation because it contradicts the dominant belief that invention (and subsequently innovation) result from a “lone genius” focusing on a problem nobody can solve. Surely, intense focus is a necessary component of complex problem solving, but it is rare that the answer comes from an isolated person devoid of input, discussion, or coaching.

The really big problems in our world require us to work together, applying our different perspectives, styles and modes of thinking to overcome their complexity.

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