Month: June 2010

Boosting Innovation Velocity

lightbulb-ideaSo here’s my problem: my innovation velocity varies too much. Way too much.

When it’s up, it’s way up – lots of fresh ideas arriving and connecting, leading to new projects, articles, even books. When it’s down, it’s pretty flat. If you were to draw a chart of my generation of good ideas over a given stretch of time, it would look like a map of Montana – large stretches of vast, windswept plains, leading to a few clusters of tall peaks where the majority of good ideas occur.

I’m interested in those peaks, in part because I think this pattern is pretty common.

Take the Beatles, for instance. In a 12-month period from mid-1968 to mid-1969, they recorded three groundbreaking albums (The White Album, Let It Be, Abbey Road) plus enough material for a later triple album (Anthology 3 ), plus five singles, plus a film (Let It Be), plus the film and soundtrack to Yellow Submarine, plus five solo albums recorded or released, plus writing a number of songs that turned up in later albums. Or there’s Einstein in 1905, cranking out the three world-changing scientific papers in one year, a triple burst of world-changing insight.

I know those are quasi-insane comparisons – my scribbles are an awful long way from the theory of relativity or the genius of “Hey Jude.” But I’d like to suggest that this pattern applies to all of us more than we might suspect. We all have innovation  hot zones where the majority of our good ideas happen, and their existence raises an important question. What is causing these zones? How do we create more of them?

I think we get a good insight into this question from a surprising place: Ira Glass, the host of This American Life and one of the most prolific, savvy radio producers on the planet.   A while back Glass did a series of revelatory interviews about the creative process. Here’s a clip:

If you’re in the innovation business, you should check out the whole thing, but in essence it boils down to two simple steps:

  1. In order to get quality ideas, you have to do the long, hard, wildly inefficient work of generating a lot of non-quality ideas.
  2. You should ruthlessly eliminate the possibilities that don’t work.

Here’s Glass on Step One:

“To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it’s usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere…. And you can’t tell if it’s going to be good until you’re really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.”

And here’s Glass on Step Two:

“It’s time to be vicious. It’s time to kill, and enjoy the killing, so something better can live. Not enough is said about the importance of abandoning crap. All video production is trying to be crap. It’s like the laws of entropy.”

I like these steps because I think most of us do some version of this instinctively, but as Glass so eloquently points out, we don’t do them nearly aggressively enough. We generate ideas, but not intensively, and not by the dozens. We test and eliminate bad ideas, but we don’t get excited and eager about playing Terminator. And maybe we should.

If we were to diagram this process, it would look like this: a massive generation, followed by a pruning. A hundred starts, followed by 99 endings and one surviving miracle. It would be a kind of churning machine — a creative engine – that generates/prunes endlessly, and which every once in a while produces something beautiful.

The interesting thing is the innovation machine Glass describes is a precise replica of another fairly effective system: evolution. I’m not the first to point it out, but the resemblance between evolution and innovation is uncanny, as both consist of a constant churning of new life, followed by a ruthless selection where the fittest forms survive.

And here’s the other parallel: every once in a while, evolution hits one of those hot zones, producing a great burst of successful innovation. Some good examples: the rise of the dinosaurs, the explosion of life in the Cambrian period, or the changes that started around 35,000 years ago with Cro-Magnon man. These explosions of innovation are evolution’s equivalent of the 1968-69 Beatles — a lot of great ideas happening in a relatively short time.

All of which leads us to a potentially interesting point – like the Beatles, evolution isn’t “trying” any harder during those successful periods than they are during the unsuccessful periods. It’s churning away just as it always is – but then, for some mysterious reason, something hits, something changes, something connects, and suddenly there’s a magnificent run of successful innovations.

Just as with evolution, the productive explosions of the Beatles and Einstein proved to be the exception in the long run. Einstein spent much of his later career pursuing unified field theory, which turned out to be a dead end. As for McCartney and Lennon et. al., they went on to produce some really good work, but would never again approach that kind of concentrated, fertile idea explosion of 1968-69.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s this: maybe our innovation velocity is not about us as much as we think. Maybe our job is to build a good creative engine – generate and prune like crazy – so that we’re ready when the world aligns for us, when the factors come together.

So what can we do in the meantime?

When I think of my innovative zones, I find they tend to happen when I’ve put myself in a position where I have to deliver – the proverbial deadline pressure. Pressure produces clarity; it compresses time and alters your vision; it increases the velocity of the idea-generation and the ruthlessness of the idea-killing. Churn rate increases; ideas and strategies are born and die quickly, like generations of fruit flies – accelerating the series of adaptations that lead to the best work.

I take a couple lessons from this:

  • 1. Generate more, in short bursts. Break a day into sections: a conscious searching for new stuff, experimenting, a kind of safe zone where things a tried without judgement. Think of this as the mutation phase – lots of random DNA colliding, creating new combinations.
  • 2. Use deadlines. This accelerates the test, so that the fittest ideas can survive.
  • 3. Use other people, but more for step one (the generation part) than step two (the ruthless killing part). When it comes to selecting what will live and what will die, it’s better to rely on our own sensibilities.

Also: it never hurts to listen to a lot of Beatles music.

3 Principles of Goofing Around

tony_alva_dogtown_and_z-boys_002I heard a couple good stories the other day about the value of daydreaming, playing, fiddling, futzing, noodling, tinkering – that age-old, hugely underrated activity known as goofing around.

Story #1 takes place in the seventies, at an international ski race in Austria. The world’s best racers are all training on a course that possesses a slightly unique feature: after the finish line, skiers must traverse a long, flat section that leads back to the chairlift.

Now most competitors do exactly what you would expect: they complete their practice run, and then make a beeline for the chairlift – they point their skis and zoom over the flats, in order to get there as quickly as possible.

All except one skier. This guy does the complete opposite of a beeline. He crosses the finish line, and then skies ever so slowly across the flats, carving curlicue turns in the snow. He plays with the snow and the edges of his skis, to see what happens. He goofs around. His name? Ingemar Stenmark, a.k.a. the the greatest slalom skier who ever lived, winner of more ski races than anyone in history.

Story #2 takes place in the late 1940s, in a cafeteria at Cornell. A young physics professor notices a student tossing a dinner plate into the air. The plate is wobbling, and the red insignia of Cornell is going around, and, just for fun, the professor decides to try to figure out the motion of the rotating plate by writing some equations — “piddling around,” he calls it.   The professor’s name was Richard Feynman; those piddling equations later led to his 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics.

There are loads of other stories about the power of goofing around – in fact, here’s a whole book on them.  And it’s clear that goofing around is on the rise — it’s official corporate policy at Google, which grants its employees “20-Percent Time” for them to pursue projects of their own choosing and initiative. Many of Google’s best innovations — Google News, Gmail, among others — trace their roots to 20-Percent Time. Other organizations are following suit.

We all know at some level that goofing around is a smart thing to do. But I think there’s an deeper connection to explore here that has to do with the specific kind of goofing that leads to innovation. To put it simply: it’s not about the goofer – it’s about the precise quality of of goofing.

We get some good insights into this from new research about daydreaming. As this WSJ story points out, daydreaming is not just idle time:

“People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty,” says cognitive neuroscientist Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. As measured by brain activity, however, “mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem.”

What’s more, daydreaming activity is not all equal. As the ever-insightful Jonah Lehrer points out in this story, daydreaming has been linked to all kinds of creative breakthroughs – if it’s done right.

“The point is that it’s not enough to just daydream,” [Dr. Jonathan] Schooler [a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara] says. “Letting your mind drift off is the easy part. The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative insight.”

I think that’s an interesting zone – the directed daydream, where part of the mind is held in reserve, watching intently for a good result – much like Feynman and Stenmark. We can visualize these goofing-around moments as places where our wiring gets a chance to stretch into new areas; where we are activating the edges of our neural circuitry, creating new, surprising, and potentially useful connections.

So what does good goofing have in common? Three qualities, it seems:

  • It’s inherently fun, and playful, because it’s rooted in a genuine enjoyment of the process.
  • It explores the edges of our abilities,  not the center. It finds new connections between unexpected sources, rather than going over old territory.
  • It  doesn’t always lead to something important. In fact, it usually doesn’t.

I think this final point is a worthy one. We never hear about the wobbly-plate daydreams that do not produce Nobel Prizes – but that doesn’t mean they are any less important in the long run. As with so many other things in life, we can’t control the outcome, but we can slightly tilt the odds, provided we make it a habit.

As the great ski coach and author Warren Witherell of Burke Mountain Academy likes to say, real talent is not about execution. It’s about exploration.

Rules of Ignition


Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion.

For Albert Einstein, that moment happened when his father brought him a compass. As Walter Isaacson wrote in Einstein: His Life and Universe:

Einstein later recalled being so excited as he examined its mysterious powers that he trembled and grew cold…. [Einstein wrote] “I can still remember – or at least I believe I can remember—that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”

For music educator Shinichi Suzuki, the moment happened was when he was seventeen and he heard a phonograph recording of violinist Mischa Elman playing Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Suzuki, who would go on to found the famed Suzuki Method, would write:

The sweetness of the sound of Elman’s violin utterly enthralled me. His velvety tone as he played the melody was like something in a dream. It made a tremendous impression on me….I brought a violin home … and, listening to Elman playing a Haydn minuet, I tried to imitate him. I had no score, and simply moved the bow, trying to play what I heard.

These moments pop up fairly often. In his memoir, the writer Stephen King tells of the mindblowing thrill of writing a story for his mother when he was seven. The neurologist Oliver Sacks tells about the transporting smells and explosions of childhood chemistry experiments in Uncle Tungsten. (My own moment came when I read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.)

As moving as they are, these moments aren’t the whole story, of course. They are doorways to years of work and passion — the slow construction of beautiful neural broadband. But they’re still important because these moments lead us to a question: What exactly happened there? Is there something special about certain kinds of inspiration? And more important, how do we make it happen?

I think we can find one clue by looking more closely at the moments themselves. So let’s break it down:

  1. The moments are serendipitous. Nobody sets it up; there’s no mediator. It happens by chance, and thus contains an inherent sense of noticing and discovery.
  2. They are joyful. Crazily, obsessively, privately joyful. As if a new, secret world is being opened.
  3. The discovery is followed directly by action. As the Suzuki example shows, the point is not merely listening to the song, but in trying to play that song — to be the player. Like the others, he didn’t just admire – he acted.

Since these kinds of interactions are deeply individualized, they are understandably difficult for science to study. But we get one insight through the work of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, psychologist and author of Flow. Czikszentmihalyi tracked two hundred artists from the time they were students until nearly two decades later. Over that time, some became serious painters; some didn’t. The deciding factor? Joy. The students who became serious painters were the ones who found the most joy in the sheer act of painting.

I think the emerging lesson is that these moments are a lot like falling in love — we can’t force it, but we can increase the odds slightly by doing a few basic things.

  • Create lots of encounters; approach each with an open mind.
  • Don’t think too much. This moment is not about being logical. It’s about rapture, immersion; about feeling, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “as if the top of my head were taken off.”
  • Let it be secret. For parents, this means backing off and giving space. Can you imagine if Suzuki’s parents were eagerly hovering as he listened to “Ave Maria”? Or if Einstein’s dad enrolled him in a class on magnetism? Helicopters are serendipity killers.

Speaking of serendipity: a few years after learning to play violin, Suzuki traveled from Japan to Berlin in order to perfect his craft. He spoke no German, but somehow managed to fall into a musical crowd, and made a lifelong friendship with an frizzy-haired amateur violinist who also worked as a physicist: Albert Einstein.