The question is, is it possible to be innovative on a regular basis and harness innovation throughout our professional lives for ourselves, or the collective benefit of our companies and our customers?
When we look at great innovations; The invention of the electric light by Thomas Edison, the development of the television by John Logie Baird or more recently the internet by Sir Timothy Berners-Lee or the Apple computers by Steve Jobs, we could easily deduce that innovation is the result of hard work and the intuitive mind of just one individual.
Edison may have said; “Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety percent perspiration”. But I don’t believe we should be intimidated and think that innovation is just the result of hard work, or that it exists solely in the minds of scientists and thought leaders. For example, Secretary Betty Nesmith in 1951 had the idea to put some white tempera into her nail varnish and use the brush to correct typing errors, this innovation became known as Liquid Paper. Earl Tupper made food storage containers, but when he got input from Brownie Wise who proposed, that Earl should sell the containers at ‘Tupperware Parties’, Tupperware evolved into a household name.
Innovation itself is of course by no means new, the word ‘innovate’, can be traced back to 1440, where it comes from the Middle French word “innovacyon” meaning “renewal” or a new way of doing things. However, one of the classic problems with innovation is that like the booster stage of a space rocket, innovation often burns brightly for a short time, before tailing off and dying away. Many innovators seem to exhibit just such a short peak of creative genius, like the short but brilliant rise of many technological innovations, and you have to wonder, had Mozart or Buddy Holly or Jimi Hendrix lived longer would they have continued to be so innovative every day in later life?
With these examples in mind, we might draw the conclusion that perhaps creativity declines with experience? Well, reassuringly it’s said that an individual’s peak can come at any time in their life, and may even be reached twice, for example; Darwin wrote the origins of the species at the age of 50. Maurice Ravel composed his ‘Bolero’ at the age of 53, and Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States in 1981 at the age of 69 after previously being a successful actor, more recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger has managed to master three successful careers in one lifetime, body builder, film star, politician and today back to film star.
Somerset Maugham had this to say on the subject….“Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than the young”.
Clearly, we all can’t be Einstein, but as Maugham suggests, we can learn to manage innovation. We can also learn from experience and strive to innovate collectively bringing extra benefits to all, as the law of synergy will kick-in (1+1 = 3). So it makes sense that we all need to access our power of innovative thought and exploit the power of the collective mind to learn how to make better use of such synergy if we are going to continually innovate. Not just with the flash of youthful ideas, but throughout our long careers.
To do this, it may be useful to examine how the creative process was defined in one of the earliest, and I believe still most valid, models, attributed to Graham Wallas in 1926*, when he proposed the following four-stage process:
Preparation (definition of issue, observation & study)
Incubation (laying the issue aside for a time)
Illumination (the moment when a new idea finally emerges)
Verification (checking it out)
The Graham Wallas model suggests that creative thinking starts with purposeful preparation and ends with analytical verification, suggesting that creative and analytical thinking are complementary. The implied theory behind this model also suggests that creative thinking is partly a subconscious process and cannot be wholly directed by the conscious mind. Sigmund Freud also reasoned, in his original “The levels of consciousness theory**”, that our brains function on different levels. The conscious level, which is the receptor of information, the unconscious level, on the face of it dormant, but packed with information, and in between the preconscious level, which draws on both of the other levels. It’s this level that offers us a major source for our insights and inspirations.
Understanding this, we might apply Freud’s theory to the 4 generally accepted steps in Wallas’s creative process; 1 Preparation 2 Incubation 3 Illumination and 4 Verification, and examine how using his creative process might help us to exploit fully the different levels of the mind.
1 Information = Conscious level (Intellectual area), This underlines the need to prepare the ground and share with the group in the form of a thorough briefing: Facts and figures, reasons why, objectives and perhaps examples that exist and other loosely related inspirational data – in fact the more you put in the more you are likely to get out.
2 Incubation = Low down in the preconscious level (emotional / logic/ reasoning area), Wallace is emphasising here, what I believe to be the most important stage of the process, the need for a time of reflection, time to let the problem swim around with your internal and external influences allowing thoughts to mature and gain some perspective.
3 Inspiration = Higher up in the preconscious level (emotional area): Most often this is a kind of brainstorming, where ideas are thrown out ‘without’ fear of criticism or ridicule. The aim here is to gain quantity of ideas (not quality of ideas). It’s the ‘idea’ that’s important, you might not see it’s relevance, but others in the group may, or it may prove only to be relevant at a later date!
4 Verification = Once again in the conscious level, here’s where we check and analyse our ideas and measure them against the information and objectives we established in the information stage. Where we sift and arrange ideas that might lead to real innovation for further study, (for example, just one of the promising ideas might be put through the whole Wallace process all over again).
What I think is interesting here, and is mostly overlooked, is the ‘incubation’ phase. Many of us have to innovate on a daily basis as part of our profession, therefore, knowing that the ability to innovate is enhanced when we ‘incubate’ and allow the full power of the brain to be accessed (rather than just the conscious level), means we can use these methodologies to externalise and share creativity to maximise our ability to innovate.
Whether you are striving for individual or collective creativity, we all need to be aware that creativity is made more difficult in a hectic and stressful environment and therefore, deliberately building a period of reflection and introspection into your thought processes is essential. For it’s only by employing ‘all’ the different stages of the process that we give our brain the space to explore the whole of our consciousness on an in-depth basis, allowing us to promote clear and innovative thought and constantly look for “innovacyon” or a new way of doing things.
Rowland Heming© 2015
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* The Art of Thought – Graham Wallace 1926
** Search : “Freud’s The levels of consciousness theory” for various papers
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