I’ve read some great posts about innovation recently. Some that say we are the most forward-thinking working generation in history, and others that say we wouldn't recognize a good idea if it sent us a push notification on our phones.
So who has it right? What separates objective observation from subjective scrutiny? I’m reminded of a great joke, one that stands the test of time and is innovative in its own right. It goes like this:
- The best scientists in the world all gathered in a room to decide, once and for all, which was the greatest invention of all time. For days, they argued the benefits of the wheel and the assembly line, the combustion engine and pulleys, the irrigation system and the like. But they just couldn't come to an agreement on one single best invention.
Late on the second night, the building janitor was making his rounds when the scientist in charge asked him to come over. “Earl,” he said, “We've been at this for days and just can't decide. So why don't you tell us what you think. What would you say, in the layman's opinion, was the greatest invention of all time?”
Earl took off his hat, leaned on his broom handle, and scratched his head. Then he said, “Well, sir, I think I'd have to say it's the thermos.” After a brief, awkward silence, the head scientist said, “The thermos? But why? All it does is keep hot things hot and cold things cold.”
“Yeah,” Earl answered, “but how does it know?”
I heard that joke from a wise man long ago, and I've lost count of how many times I have recited it to refocus my thinking. It isn't just that we sometimes forget to keep it simple, but that we fail to notice the changing standards of our measurements. The familiar becomes a barrier to learning, to new ways of seeing ordinary and extraordinary things.
Industries, to date, have operated in silos, innovating from within and measuring themselves against each other for confirmation. But when you look across them as a whole, you find some have moved far beyond others in many areas, be it technology, communication, efficiency, or quality.
Therefore, it's vital, as business folk, that we step out of our habits and our routines to see our problems and our dilemmas with new eyes. How far you step away is up to you, but new Internet technologies like social media allow us to see further than we could before. We can see how other companies and other industries are facing similar challenges and overcoming them in ways we might never have entertained.
Initiatives like TED talks provide us with food for thought and for action on a regular basis. And events such as the SXSW interactive festival (more on this later) give us a chance to mix with people in our field who are succeeding or struggling in other industries.
There's no shortage of new ways of thinking, just as there is no one right way to do things. So keep your mind open to new ideas and different ways of looking at your business. You just might discover new possibilities when you look with different eyes.
So what about you? Where do you go for new ideas on solving old problems?