Out of Your Mind


The roots of innovation are anything but linear or predicable. Unfortunately, sitting around waiting for the

Many have praised the value of a liberal arts education in business, to the point where some even think the MFA is the new MBA. One of the founders of my alma mater Dickinson College, Dr. Benjamin Rush, thought it would be a good idea to create a school that trained the leaders of the newly formed nation, after the signing of the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution in 1783. The backbone of this revolutionary educational model is a solid foundation in the liberal arts. This “liberal education” teaches students to embrace new ways of thinking, solve problems creatively and address important social issues purposefully. I think the main benefit of my liberal arts education has been learning to connect the dots, see patterns, and leave space for the unexplainable.

Most of you who are reading this are technical, linear, analytical, left-brain, ESTJ's who have been taught that the shortest distance between a problem and a solution is a straight line. You know the drill:

  • Problem Definition - including problem analysis, redefinition, and all aspects associated with defining the problem clearly.
  • Idea Generation - The divergent process of coming up with ideas.
  • Idea Selection - The convergent process of reducing all the many ideas into realistic solutions
  • Idea Implementation - Turning the refined ideas in reality.
  • Processes

There are lots of ways to ideate and skin the cat. For 192 ways to solve a problem, check

Unfortunately, research indicates and experience teaches us that innovation doesn't work that way most of the time. The technology push-market pull model proposes that success happens when, during a deliberative, data-driven process riddled with MBA's and spreadsheets, a problem is matched with a solution. Magic happens when technopreneurs meet market perceivers. The "structured serendipity" model, on the other hand, is closer to reality. Ask the guy who discovered penicillin.

In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson discusses how serendipity works in innovation, along with 6 other patterns throughout history: the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, error, exaptation, and platforms.

The common thread is that the roots of innovation are anything but linear or predicable, but, instead result from a combination of everything from evolving networks, the rise of the modern city, to happy accidents.

Unfortunately, sitting around waiting for the "Ah-hah" is not the best use of your time. Follow the recommended steps for developing your innovation, but reserve some space in your cerebral cortex for ambiguity, the unexpected and luck. Recognize that your agonizingly prepared Plan A is unlikely to be what ultimately succeeds, so reserve space for Plan B, C, or whatever works.

Being bored some of the time is not a bad idea either.

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