I’m experimenting with those annoying headlines they run on news sites now. “Kid eats pancakes, and then this happens…” What do you think?
Anyway, there are an absurd number of people billing themselves as ‘innovation experts.’ Many of them have worked for successful companies, and so what they’re really doing is going around and telling others about the good (and sometimes not-so-good) innovations they were a part of during their tenure. They could just as easily be billing themselves as industry experts eager to share their own hard-won knowledge with people like you and me. But ‘innovation expert’ sounds sexier, and so that’s what they are.
Now I don’t want to suggest that these people aren’t intelligent or innovative. But I’ve sat in on a few of these innovation seminars, and I’m starting to believe that there’s not much to the whole concept. I’ve been encouraged to ask thoughtful questions and imagine unusual scenarios and brainstorm game-changing products – I’ve even been asked to try riding a bicycle that goes left whenever you turn the handlebars right and vice versa, which is extremely weird and much harder than you’d think – but when you boil it all down, what I’m really being asked to do is think. Just think. Nothing more complicated than that. Innovation is the result of creative thought, and that’s almost all there is to it.
After that, most ‘innovation experts’ propose to teach you how to think creatively, and that’s where I start to get irritated. Creative thought is not the province of a chosen few, and it’s not a difficult skill for anyone to master. Humanity is instinctively creative, something which is blindingly evident anytime you watch children playing together. Creative thought isn’t something that we need to be taught how to do; it’s something we need to give ourselves permission to do. Again, nothing more complicated than that.
Well, almost. There is one essential condition for creative thought to exist and thrive, and it’s one that happens to get in our way almost constantly – you generally can’t be doing anything else at the same time. When our brains engage in any activity that requires even a moderate amount of our attention, we typically don’t have the capacity to let our minds wander the way they need to if we want innovation to happen. That’s why Archimedes discovered the principle of buoyancy while he was relaxing in a bath, and it’s why some of your own best ideas have come to you while you were walking or lingering in the shower or having an idle conversation in a bar or driving along a monotonous stretch of highway. Whatever your last great idea was, it very likely occurred while you were doing something that did not require an enormous amount of your conscious attention. That’s typically where your brain finds the freedom to come up with whatever great idea you came up with.
Which means the thing that usually stifles innovation is that most of us associate being busy with being productive, so we fill as much of our time as possible keeping our brains from slipping into idleness, otherwise called “doing nothing.” It’s a marvelous paradox; most of us would agree that our best ideas come to us when we’re not otherwise engaged, and yet most of us keep ourselves engaged as often as possible. The very thought of sitting idly at work, staring, thinking – “doing nothing” – is almost blasphemous.
However, if you want to become more innovative, you should allow yourself the freedom to let your mind relax and follow whatever mysterious pathways it takes on its meandering road toward brilliance. Maybe you really are so enormously busy at work that you simply can’t afford any idle time to think and reflect during those precious eight hours, and if so then you’ll have to find some free time elsewhere.
But odds are you have more free time than you think. The sooner you stop filling it with unnecessary distractions, the more quickly you’ll find innovation beating its fist on your door.
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