Innovation and creativity are sometimes thought of as great ideas and flashes of inspiration. Ideas that float around in the ether waiting to be grabbed by a genius who can take this fully formed idea and turn it into something amazing.
But creation comes from the culmination of thousands – millions – maybe tens of millions of thoughts and actions.
Watching Human Universe recently – ‘Apeman to Spaceman’ – reminded me of this with the discovery of stone tipped spears in Ethiopia – thought to pre-date humans by around 85,000 years. Which means the direct ancestors of homo sapiens already had thousands of years of product development in building advanced hunting tools before we came along.
Innovation has to start somewhere. Then built, nurtured and refined.
“When you look at a rock, do you see a spear?”.
It’s not what we see in front of us, but where our imagination can take us.
True vision is looking beyond what is already there. The spears hadn’t existed before so they didn’t know what one looked like – even more so which type of rock, wood and animal fat was going to work the best to turn it into a working prototype. There would have been some thinking around a way of making things better. A gradual thought process and evolution of thinking, experimentation and learning.
Evolution of the human race is the ultimate example of the aggregation of marginal gains. In the world of lean startup methodology this might be described as ‘Build, Measure, Learn’. Keep on moving. Developing. Learning.
People are the ideas
In the book Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull writes about the leadership, culture and environment that has made Pixar so successful. He discusses how ideas come from people and therefore people are more important than ideas.
“Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people. In any given Pixar film, every line of dialogue, every beam of light or patch of shade, every sound effect is there because it contributes to the greater whole. In the end, if you do it right, people come out of the theatre and say, “A movie about toys – what a clever idea!”
Build, Measure, Learn
“When it can’t be done, do it. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t exist.” Paul Arden
Focusing on the environment, the people and its values is central for an organization that strives to be creative and innovative. This means encouraging an atmosphere and reality of candor – another dominant theme in the Pixar culture – so feedback is measured and objective without judgement. This is not easy and requires a discipline in approach and behaviours.
It also means that you need to keep moving forward. Fear of not doing something or the consequences of doing something ‘wrong’ are innovation’s enemy. Just like riding a bike, you may fall off a few times to begin with, but keep on going. Fail early, fail fast and be wrong as fast as you can or as Andrew Stanton puts it, one of the founding Pixar Directors – “Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads on so you’re not afraid of falling and go.”
This is the principle behind The Lean Startup movement which – like Pixar – has many references to the manufacturing processes developed by Toyota. Build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – i.e. keeping your bike low to the ground – get feedback, measure results, learn and continuously develop.
The Arrow of Time
Innovation and creativity has to maintain a forward momentum. The arrow of time keeps moving and in the rules of quantum physics, something has to happen. There cannot be nothingness or emptiness. Inaction just displaces the outcome somewhere else. Standing still for fear of taking the wrong path has a consequence. The fear of failure and the energy focused on avoiding it, is itself a path to failure.
In the same way the often used phrase of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is rooted in negativity and fear. The greater achievements of enhancing performance, making something better are outweighed by the fear of the consequences. An attitude that doesn’t seek self-improvement and growth, but actually ends up going backwards.
Nurture and Grow
A culture that is dominated by an attitude of negative criticism and deconstruction is not one that will achieve long term creative success. Taking an approach of aggressively looking for flaws with an overtly critical approach to proving something ‘wrong’ is often driven by ego and insecurity. It’s an attitude that is poisonous to creativity and detrimental to innovation and growth.
Developing something new and unproven requires a spirit of bravery and positivity with energy that is focused on continuous improvement for the greater good. Pragmatically identifying how to create a better outcome. This takes courage and self-belief, but fosters and nurtures creativity and innovation rather than killing it.
I’ll leave the last words to one of the brilliant Pixar characters – Anton Ego, the fearsome food critic in the film Ratatouille:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement.We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.
The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations.
The new needs friends.”