Innovation calls for so much more than just hard work. If all it took was hard work we’d already be successful because we work long and hard these days (who doesn’t?). Hard work is definitely part of the formula but there is another ingredient needed before the hard work will pay off. When seeking innovation we typically ask, “How do we get ideas?” But that’s the wrong question. I don’t think we get ideas; I think ideas get us. Artists routinely say their best ideas seem to come from outside of themselves and what they do is give form to those ideas through whatever medium they are working in, be it painting, sculpture, dance, music, film, or literature.
Learning from Artists
So the better question to ask is “How do we put ourselves in a frame of mind where we can receive inspiration when it comes to us?” Artists have been wrestling with this question for millennia. Here are some things I see artists do when they work:· They immerse themselves in their subjects. Actors immerse themselves in the personalities and histories of their characters, painters do sketch after sketch of an image, and musicians experiment with many different sequences of notes and tempos.· They collaborate. Many forms of art require effective collaboration between groups of people with complementary skills. For instance people in film, theater and dance work closely with lighting designers, costume designers, musicians, photographers etc. They combine different ideas from the people they work with to give form to their art.· They play with different ideas. They don’t dismiss an idea just because it seems strange at first. They try out different combinations of movement, light, costumes, and music to see what happens. Innovation occurs when a certain combination of ideas suddenly reveals a simple underlying pattern that ties the work together and expresses what the artistic work is about. This is the proverbial “Aha!” moment. Artists say they know the inspiration is authentic if they have an intellectual, emotional, and physical response to it. Once that happens, there’s a flurry of activity as people flesh out their inspiration and give it shape. During this period, artists work long hours; they become single-minded about bringing their ideas into tangible form and presenting them to the world.
The Challenge of Making Something New
Extrapolating from the way artists work, I see four basic practices that the innovative business person needs to cultivate in order to excel:
1. Immerse yourself in the business. It almost goes without saying that you should have a good grasp of the concepts, rules, and systems that guide the business operations of your company. This means a good working understanding of how each business activity fits into the overall business, how the work in each activity is performed, and what the cost and profit factors are.
2. Collaborate frequently. Business people need to innovate in the face of high levels of complexity in both business processes and technology. Complexity can be handled more easily if groups of people from marketing, sales, operations, finance and information technology work together, bringing their complementary skills to bear on a problem. The innovative executive orchestrates this process.
3. Tolerate uncertainty. It is an act of discipline and sometimes of courage to immerse oneself in the details of a problem and resist the temptation to rush to judgment about what should be done. Because of the complexity inherent in most business problems, it is unlikely that the first few ideas to come along will be truly innovative. Don’t dismiss ideas just because they defy preconceived notions, and don’t give in to pressure to start building something before you get the inspiration you need.
4. Look for simple patterns – for this is where the “Aha!” moments lie. Look for designs where all the elements fit together in a simple, logical, and complementary fashion. Remember that complex designs for new systems or business operations usually signify that solutions have not been completely explored. When you find a simple combination of workflow processes and technology that satisfy a wide variety of business requirements, only then do you know you have an innovative design.
And here’s something else to consider. Once a big project is finished or a big show is over, artists leave town and take time off. Being innovative and creative is emotionally and physically taxing. Artists feel drained after they’ve done good work. They take time to recharge. We business people need to do the same. Otherwise all work and no play can make us awfully dull.
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Michael Hugos is a principal at Center for Systems Innovation [c4si], finding elegant solutions to complex problems; mentoring teams in agile development. He can be reached via his website at www.MichaelHugos.com.