The Innovation Blog

Why is the sky blue? -- three tips for innovation

Posted by Creative Realities on June 26, 2011

blue sky with clouds

Innovation begins with identifying a problem or opportunity

Before creative thinking can have use in innovation, it must address, as Miland Lele so clearly articulated in his book Monopoly Rules, an "ownable whitespace for a useful period of time."  Identifying that whitespace involves observation.  Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the 1937 Nobel Prize winner once said that discovery was "Seeing what everyone else sees... and thinking what no one else has thought." 

In innovation, too many times we focus only on the creative thinking part of the equation.  "What's the idea?"  We should first focus on "What's the opportunity?"  And to find them, we have to be more observant.  We must learn to tap into that childlike quality of curiousity that we all lose over time.  Why do we lose this curiousity?  In my experience, there are several reasons we lose our curiosity. 

  • We're too busy charging through life focused on what we already have on our plate to divert ourselves to wondering about something that isn't immediately on our agenda. 
  • We miss the gaps or don't ask the question because we fill in the blanks based on what we already know or think we know.
  • We do not wish to appear unintelligent by asking a "stupid" question.

When we fail to exercise our natural curiosity regularly, we lose the skills we were born with.  We lose the critical power that comes from asking "why?"  When was the last time you asked something like "Why is the sky blue?"  Or more critical to innovation "Why is that?" "Why did that happen?"  or "What's wrong/unusual/different about what I'm seeing?"

Learning to observe.

I recently took a team of scientists through one of their own company's laboratories.  They were instructed to observe, ask questions and look for new opportunities based on this visit.  They spent 20 minutes in the lab, walking around with a notepad and a camera, guided by the head of the lab.  They could ask anything they wanted.  At the end of the tour we debriefed.  Just by taking the time, they all learned something new about their own business.  But they didn't have any insights about new opportunities.

I was with them.  I also had a notepad and a camera.  When I spotted something I didn't understand, or that looked unusual, out of place, etc., I took a picture and asked the lab people about it, quietly on the side.  When the team was done debriefing, I showed my pictures.  When prompted with the pictures, they all vaguely remembered seeing the same thing.  But none had wondered "why?"  I had identified three opportunities for innovation -- stimulated by an observation, and confirmed by asking "why." 

So why did I see things they didn't?  They were all supposed to be looking for opportunities.  They all were asking questions.  What was different?

Three tips for being better explorers:

  1. Curiosity.  I was more interested in oddities, abnormalities, things out of place than in what was working well.  So I looked more carefully for them.
  2. Naivete.  I'm not a scientist.  I have no pre-conceived notions about what the lab did, so my mind did not automatically pass over abnormalities and "fill in the blanks" with what I thought I knew to be true.
  3. Freedom to ask "why."  While everyone was instructed to ask this question, none asked any questions that might make them look "stupid" in front of their peers.  I have no such compunction.  I love to ask the "stupid" question because often it's the one that turns out to be the smartest question you could ask.  It makes people think about things and explain them in "layman's terms" which often reveal new insights.

Those are my tips for you in becoming a more innovative person.  Before you try having a new thought, be an explorer who looks for new opportunities to create new value.

Be curious.  Allow yourself to be naieve -- even if you are well schooled and experienced in a particular area, consider it as if you weren't.  Ask the "stupid" question "why."  When you get back in touch with the childlike curiosity you were born with, you will be surprised at how many new opportunities you can find!

Learn to exercise your curiosity muscle!  At least once a day, look at something (it can be anything -- the lamp or computer on your desk, anything) and find something you wonder about.  Ask yourself "why" -- then speculate, look it up on the internet, do something to may yourself think about it differently.

-- Jay Terwilliger

Topics: Jay Terwilliger, Relaxed Concentration, creative thinking, Innovation, Collaboration, 9 Critical Success Factors, breakthrough innovation, Essentials for Innovation, brainstorming, creative thinking skills, changing the game, connection making