Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Innovation is a messy business

The Tao of Innovation

Making creativity work in the cold hard light of day

Innovation seldom leads where you think that it will, and doesn’t work to a manager’s schedule. But if you know how to listen, the world will tell you where to look for the next big idea.


Defining innovation can be a bit like trying to define pornography; “I can’t really tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it!” Even though everything that I have done in my career involves innovation in one way or another, I can’t really define innovation either. But I can tell you what it looks like.

First of all, most of what people call “innovation” isn’t.  I put “innovative design” into Google and the top hit was for a company that sells notebooks with your kid’s favorite superhero or Disney princess on the cover.  Really?

Real innovation is something different.  It means stepping off the curb into traffic, facing challenges that no one could see coming.  It means answering questions that no one had even thought to ask.  Real innovation means changing the rules of the game.

Real Innovation is Messy

The first thing to understand about real innovation is that it is an MBA’s worst nightmare.  Like life itself, innovation is messy and unpredictable.  Successful innovation has to have a goal to give it direction, but if you expect that goal to be your ultimate destination it’s game over. Innovation does not live on an org chart nor does it work to a schedule. Over-management is the surest way to kill innovation, but unless it is well-managed it cannot grow.

Innovation is the product of people who are valued for their individuality and given the time and opportunity to pursue their interests.  It happens on the boundaries between disparate ways of thinking about the world and requires individuals who refuse to respect those boundaries. It is more likely to happen standing at the water cooler or drinking a beer than it is sitting around a conference table. It flows from ideas that seemed mere curiosities right up until the moment that they became everything.

Innovation blends creativity with practicality

Effective innovation comes from a blend of free-wheeling out of the box creativity and cold, hard real-world practicality.

Innovation means living with uncertainty and being willing to take huge risks.  Most attempts at innovation fail.  If you can’t live with that you don’t belong in the game.

Innovation is Free-thinking Creativity Mixed With Hard-Nosed Practicality

Innovation means finding that difficult balance between your dreams of what could be and respect for the constraints of what is.  Innovation means keeping an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.

Successful innovation begins with wild freethinking creativity that is followed by brutal take-no-prisoners intellectual violence.  Reliable knowledge doesn’t come from trying to prove that an idea is correct. Reliable knowledge comes from doing your best to show that an idea is wrong, and failing. If an idea is sound then it can stand up to that kind of scrutiny. But if an idea can’t stand the heat it was never your friend in the first place.

Innovation Comes to Those Who Think

Innovative ideas don’t come from nowhere. If you are just sitting around waiting for a great new idea to pop into your head it’s going to be a long wait. Inspiration comes when you are thinking about the right things in the right way. A good place to start is by understanding the box that you live in, and then looking for holes in the sides of the box. The world will tell you about opportunities for innovation, if only you know how to listen.

When I talk to business leaders I give them a challenge. I ask them to sit down and make a list of the most fundamental knowledge, ideas, and assumptions at the core of their business. Then I ask them to spend the next month actively looking for reasons to think that those ideas and assumptions might be wrong. Do that, and make it a habit, and I’ll bet you a good bottle of Scotch that a year from now you’ll be doing business differently!

In the process of trying to poke holes in your own thinking you just might discover that the world is different than you thought it was.  And when you do you also might have found a door for innovation that you can drive a truck through, all the way to the bank!

The Tao of Innovation ^ Making creativity work in the cold hard light of day  © Dr. Jeff Hester
Content may not be copied to other sites. All Rights Reserved.

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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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