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Ingenuity: Pathway To Innovation

I read, write, and talk about creativity and innovation ALOT--what it is, why it matters, how to pursue it. So it's time to talk a bit about what innovation isn't, and introduce a concept admittedly nuanced but that may fit a better in the business world than creativity.

Not Innovation

Innovation is NOT sitting around dreaming up earth-shattering ideas behind closed doors, trying to be clever and creative in concocting a new secret sauce that will blow the doors off the competition. It is making best use of one’s expertise while openly exploring possibility and defining the task at hand.

It’s NOT a bevy of high-ranking executive managers involved in a costly and complex process engineered to boil the ocean. It is a frontline worker exploring, finding and solving an important problem hands-on, down where the action is.

It’s NOT an ivory tower edict with specific marching instructions handed down in a command-and-control fashion. It is a quick dip in the basic fundamentals followed by an open invitation to produce something of value, leaving open to individual interpretation how best to do so.

It’s NOT about a company. It is about people—the right people with the right idea.

It’s NOT about artistic expression. It is about the everyman blending business skills with the creativity of an artist and discipline of a scientist.

Which brings me to the concept of ingenuity, which is more than creativity. Ingenuity is equal parts creativity (something original), application (something built), and value (something useful).

Why ingenuity? Because creativity as a concept scares the average big company denizen, for two reasons.

First, because conventional wisdom treats it as a some special quality, a mystical talent, selectively reserved for le artiste who waits for the kiss of the muse to inspire a masterpiece. Which, of course, is nonsense, but certainly convenient. By thinking of creativity as a natural gift, you can relieve accountability for ingenuity and excuse failure to innovate all in a single stroke.

Second, because creativity seems somehow “soft” and unrelated to the hard-edged tactics thought to be needed to succeed on the business battlefield. Unless you're a member of the traditionally create set (advertising, design, media).

The reality of the situation is just the reverse.

Every year, our work gets more complex. Business gets more competitive. Jobs get more specialized. Careers get less stable. Goals get more challenging. Budgets shrink. Deadlines tighten. And all the while, the pace of change just keeps accelerating.

How are you going to deal with all that? You’ve got more to do and less to do it with. You have no choice other than to get more creative, more resourceful. You've got to build and ship something, and that something needs to deliver value to someone somewhere or you'll quickly find yourself irrelevant.

Ingenuity is closer to that kind of applied creativity. And there are two sides to the ingenuity coin: engagement, and exploration.

Allow me to clarify. Engagement first.

Engagement

Engagement depends largely on how you personally connect with your work. When the ties are strong, ingenuity flow. When they’re not, it’s a real struggle. You have to connect on two levels, task and cause. The first is about the what and the second is about the so what.

Task

Enter cognitive psychology. Now, psychologists love to explain our uniquely hard-wired capabilities in hugely complex terms. Sixteen types, thirty-four strengths, etc. It all started about 2500 years ago, when Greek physician Hippocrates talked about the four “humours.” Then philosopher Plato touted the four “faculties of the soul,” followed by Aristotle, who focused on the four “sources of happiness.” More modern thought follows suit: Erich Adickes spoke of four “worldviews.” Eduard Spränger mentioned four “value attitudes.” Carl Jung wrote of four “basic functions.” Isabel Briggs Myers identified four “types.” David Keirsey described four “temperaments.” Countless books offer different spins and labels. I'm about to do the same, but in the simplest terms, terms that matter more to someone in business.

Think of it like this: it’s the Rule of Four. Take all of the work that’s gone before, pare it back to something easier to grasp and more business-friendly, and you have the four basic buckets of natural ability:

1. Strategy—you’re an idea person, a thoughtstarter

2. Tactics—you’re an action person, a playmaker

3. Logistics—you’re a process person, a taskmaster

4. Diplomacy—you’re a people person, a peacekeeper

I'm you know someone in each category. We all have some of each, but one overrides the others, and defines our true sweetspot. That’s where our greatest ingenuity comes from.

That’s the “flow zone.”

You know it when you’re in the zone. You feel the flow, the way a surfer feels "in the tube." You feel independent, free to flex and stretch your abilities in pursuit of the goal, which always seems clear. Taking risks doesn’t seem so scary, because the confidence is there. You define the work differently, expanding your role without giving it a second thought. You’re far more resourceful than others. You use constraints as creative fuel, and see opportunities to improve and innovate that others don’t. Nothing seems impossible. You feel connected to something larger than your immediate task. You look up from your work to see that the day’s flown past. Hit that zone, and and ingenuity takes full flight.

Too, you know it when you’re nowhere close to your zone, when you're misfit, utterly off the reservation. Everything is a bore and a chore. The day drags on in dismal drudgery and stifling mediocrity. On a bad day you think about secession, even sabotage. You live for the raise or promotion. You get better at what you do, but for reasons of advancement only. You ravage your creative energy in the constant search for something more or better. If it comes along, you snatch it without batting an eye. You’ve got no skin in the game—no commitment, no connection.

The reality is that no one hits their zone all day, every day. You’re always somewhere between the two poles. But if you’re not constantly angling to position your ability to more fully connect to the task, engagement—and thus ingenuity—will remain always out of reach.

Cause

It’s easy to lose sight of the meaning behind your work when you’re part of a large organization. But that’s the second point of connection: the cause you’re fighting for. It’s a higher level of fit.

Walk into any Toyota operation, and everyone is in sync with the same aim: highest quality, lowest cost, shortest lead time...for your particular customer. Everything is tied to that singular purpose. Everyone knows, at their particular level, where to play and how to win. The alignment is tight.

Most companies do an annual dance around purpose, spending days in offsites to conduct what amounts to a creative writing exercise in which they draft pithy statements meant to inspire, but that inevitably ring hollow and fail to capture the real reason they exist.

That’s why they do it every year... they’re still trying to get it right.

And we’re no better at the individual level. We’re great at titles and describing what we do. We’re lousy at pinpointing exactly why we do it.

But here’s the thing: cause trumps task. Because when you’ve connected at the higher level, you know you’re making a difference. Helping people. And that’s the most powerful motivator there is. You could be in the job you’re born for, but if you’re fuzzy on the significance of it in the grand scheme of things, you’ll disconnect.

There goes your ingenuity.

We get caught up in the form our work takes – job titles, occupations, careers. I’m in sales, I’m an attorney, I’m a writer. Those are merely convenient descriptions of activity. They can block us from seeing the importance of our work, our function.

We forget that all art has its foundations in utility. Great works of earlier centuries were never meant to hang in museums and adorn private collections any more than Egyptian hieroglyphics were meant to simply beautify crypts, wooden totem poles to garnish the forest, or coarse images of the hunter’s kill to decorate the walls of a cave.

Rather, they were intended for a very specific purpose or to signify a specific event, judged first and foremost by function and usefulness, and by the ability to meet the requirements of the commissioner.

They were made by people, for people.

(If you're struggling to make the deep causal connection to your current work, read my post on The 5 Whys.)

We're not done. That's just Side A of ingenuity.

Exploration

Call it tinkering. Or testing. Or tweaking. Whatever you call it, it’s the enemy of the status quo, of complacency, and of the ordinary. Want to work like an artist? New and better is your creed. Because for the artist, as is just isn’t acceptable.

So it’s not enough to be technically proficient at something. Sure, to be a true master at anything, one must first gain command of “old school” methods. But competence and workmanship is just the ante to the game. Ingenuity is about new, better, different. We all marvel at the wizards who not only perform the basics to near perfection, but then actually change the game and achieve hero status: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Tony Shieh.

We’re talking about the application of imagination here. And the key ingredient is constant exploration.

To do it, you have to accept and respect the limitations of your specific medium—like any artist—and pursue possibility within the given confines, leveraging the constraints to drive new ideas and methods. That’s a mindshift for most. But eight basic notes in music doesn’t seem to have stifled the ingenuity of musicians.

And you have to intensely and relentlessly pursue the kinds of questions found at the heart of most every breakthrough, big or small. The kind that always drive “new school” thinking: Is there a better way, a different way? What’s possible, given my abilities?

Exploration always starts with a question. And the right question is far more important than the right answer. Author Milan Kundera once said, “I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.”

The problem is that we forget how to ask questions, starting at around age five. In the vast majority of our institutions and organizations we breed too much conformity of thought and not enough curiosity. We’re often so adamant about what we know and believe to be true that we limit ourselves to only the options right in front of us, and fail to consider what’s truly possible.

But.

Everything we know now was at one time undiscovered. So it makes sense to make discovery a major part of the daily work.

The question is everything. The question is the real muse. Ingenuity is all about the right question.

I'll end on that note and dismount my soapbox, but before I do, allow me to pose seven ways to start teasing out your ingenuity:

1. Question everything. Then do it again.

2. Start every conversation with a question. Even if the conversation is with yourself.

3. Answer every question with a question.

4. Ask at least one dumb question in every meeting.

5. Begin every idea, recommendation, or suggestion as a question.

6. Have three questions you always ask someone.

7. Develop the single question that drives your work. Do the same thing for your life.

A toast to all who have the same question for work and life.

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60 Responses to "Ingenuity: Pathway To Innovation"

  • Ali
    Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013 - 10:32 PM

    This is one of the more thought-provocative pieces I’ve read in a while. I had to pause a number of times to let some of messages sink in as I reflected on them.

    Your advice to ask questions reminded me of Emerson’s famous line: “what has become clear to you since last we met?” I find this to still be a fascinating question to start conversations/meetings with.

    I also like your take on ingenuity vs creativity. It’s a great way to get business-folk talking about and working with creative initiatives without sounding fluffy or too artsy. I might be infusing that into my own discussions with my team.

    I recently wrote a blog post about how constraints can actually help us become creative, though, it’s nowhere near as eloquent and deep-diving as yours. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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