November 21, 2012

Exercising Creative Muscle

I was recently asked to write a post for my company's innovation blog. At first, I struggled and worried about what to write.  I did not want to cover the same tired topics and add to the clutter on the net. The only way I could think to be unique was to share a personal story...

But let’s first define innovation with an excerpt from Wikipedia:

[The word innovation derives from the Latin word innovates, which is the noun form of innovare “to renew or change,” stemming from in—“into” + novus—“new”] 

So... “into the new...”

Please let me postulate on why it may be difficult to be seems as we journey through life, we pick a profession and become so specialized that we lose much of the mental versatility that allows us to view problems from different points of view. Even though we start out as very open and highly adaptable creatures, we are steered into specialization by social and economic forces. This even leads us to personally define ourselves by a profession...such as a nurse, a doctor, an engineer, a computer programmer, a politician, a lawyer, etc. Most of these professions force us to strengthen one set of skills, while letting other skills languish or go dormant. We have to practice the one skill we are good at and rely on other people for the skills or qualities we have not developed.

However, not exercising the versatility that makes us human can lead to a mundane space where...we have to listen to professional musicians sing because we can't carry a tune, we watch professional athletes play basketball because we haven't learned the techniques and are out of shape, we hire contractors because we can't wield a hammer, etc. And innovation? Well, we leave that up to rock stars like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

As a father of four, I have realized through my children that everyone has unique qualities that can be nurtured and developed over time. I have observed that my kids were born with an innate creativity to do anything they choose...just like most other kids.  They have not lost their versatile and agile thinking...yet. Maybe they will never be Picaso, Bono or Michael Jordan, but we still give them permission to find fulfillment in whatever creative endeavors they try.

This is most apparent in daughter #2, Alexandria (Alex). First, nothing gets in her way when she makes up her mind to run in a certain direction. And second, I wouldn't stop her, even if I could. That would only muddle her creative momentum. My goal is to provide a safe environment for her to pursue her passions and an escape route if something “goes south” on her.

She is truly an inspiration when it comes to innovation. She has honed her basic design skills and moved on to the point where she is beyond mimicking others and is able to create truly innovative ideas and unique concepts that delight and resonate emotionally.

She is able to take us “into the new” and transform something old and familiar and create something new and surprising. Innovation!

When we lived in Seoul, there were many, many markets. Not just food and spice markets, but markets for everything. Especially for crafts and trades like printing, electrical lighting, musical instruments, jewelry, culinary arts, candy making, photography, fashion...and more!

Source: Rue’s News

As Alex spent time in these markets, she transformed from tourist to artisan to innovator. She bought lots of supplies, brought them home and started making was endless. She made ceramics, clothing and jewelry...and become more and more proficient in her skills. One thing that became apparent was her innovative style...she was not mimicking what was already on the market, but taking something old and familiar and transforming it into something new and surprising...

Source: Jones New York
What would you do to innovate on earrings? New colors? More expensive stones? Segment your market and sell to different target groups? Use different materials? That is not innovation.  That is incremental change.

Source: Jones New York

What would you do to innovate on zippers? Make them waterproof? Use different hardware? Change the shape? Again, that is incremental change.

Now, what Alex did was to take both of these to familiar items and combine them! Now we have innovation.

Photo: Douglas Wills

When you combine the earring and zipper, the contrasting functions of each create a mental dissonance that “tickles” our thinking.

To test the market, Lyra, my wife wears them “out on the town...”  The earrings turn peoples’ heads as they try to make sense of what’s dangling on her ears...once they grasp what they are, people are compelled to comment. And a conversation ensues. After Lyra tells the story of Alex, they all want a pair of their own! We would call this part of innovation, the experimentation phase. This is where you test whether people are willing to buy through some sort of exchange of value. The value being exchanged is the time people are willing to spend conversing.

That is innovation! Something new and surprising derived from something old and familiar.

Child’s play, you think? Here are some other examples you might be familiar with...

The OXO Peeler is a classic business case...
Sources: Chef,, OXO   Montage: Douglas Wills

If you want to learn more about OXO...

The Pop Phone
Sources: Baby Bliss, ASOS, Yutaka Tsutano   Montage: Douglas Wills

When you see the innovations, they seem obvious, but to come up with them, it takes versatile thinking and permission to explore. If you are responsible for your company’s innovation efforts, make sure that you are giving your employees the permission to explore and creating an environment that fosters creativity without fear of failure that excites them about what is possible!

I can’t wait for Alex’s next idea!
Photo: Lyra Jakabhazy


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