Principles of Innovation

June 19, 2019

Art is created through an internal dialogue we have with ourselves and results in a form that expresses who we are or want to be. It results in intrinsic values – the value of the thing itself without concern for the value or usefulness the external world places on it.

Innovation is fueled by a compulsion to change the world – for profit or to achieve a social impact.   It is the dialogue the maker/creator/inventor has with the external world. Innovators need an audience and start working with an audience in mind. Artists are happy to find an audience but that’s not the primary reason they create.

This is part two of seven of the Corzo Center's Black Book. Read more at

Principles of Innovation

We are told that there’s a virtue in making things “transparent.”   The problem with that is we see through transparent things and don’t know they exist. Transparency is no help to an innovator.

David Foster Wallace got it right in a speech to a Kenyon College graduating class.  His story:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’  And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The water is transparent to those fish.  They don’t know it exists in the same way they don’t know they’re wet.  Our mantra needs to be – Make the world “opaque” so we can see it and then reshape it.  

How do innovators handle the problem?  They learn to squint.

Change the process.   If you are right handed and start to write with your left hand, you’ll begin to rethink the skill of writing. You won’t take it for granted but more importantly you’ll begin to see how handwriting works. Most of the time we do what we do on automatic pilot – drive, eat, walk down a street.   That means we don’t see what’s about us nor how the world and the people in it are behaving.

Think Absurd. Sometimes this is called imagining the impossible, the inconceivable, or, simply, speaking nonsense.   

As you can imagine, it’s not easy to think absurd.  You need to construct an upside down world in which every “sane” rule or accepted principle is reversed.   Einstein imagining the 4th Dimension.  Copernicus drawing a heliocentric universe.  Lewis Carroll writing about Wonderland. The idea of selling bottled water in plastic containers when it’s free and good at public fountains.   An online news and social media network (Twitter) in which users are restricted to 140 characters. What do you think people thought when they first heard those ideas?   Absurd!

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? This is a classic series of questions that allows us to peel back the layers of what we think we know or believe.   “Why do you do that?” We answer. And then we’re asked, “So why do you do that?” And again, and again, and again. Avoid looking for the symptom of the problem, but look, instead, for the root cause, that the underlying cause of the problem.  The deeper you go, the more insight you’ll have about a possible solution.

Making Theater of a Situation. “The play’s the thing.”   To see the water, not merely swim in it, to make action and events opaque, innovators treat situations as moments of theatre.  It is as though we are witnessing a scripted play, a performance in which those in it are characters; the actions are pre-defined; the environment itself a set.

To achieve this distance, innovators will sometimes photograph or videotape the space they are working in, draw and map it, or write a narrative story as though they were writing a script.  Designers will recognize here the techniques of “design thinking” in which situations are observed and then mapped. Those in theater will recognize Bertolt Brecht’s principle of “the alienation effect,” in which the “familiar is made strange.”  In both, the distance provides observer (audience or designer) distance which provides a way to understand the rules at play, change them, redirect elements and redefine the values.

This approach helps us see things differently because we are outside of them, looking in. As a result, we can analyze, rewrite, redirect and replay the moment:  everything is tangible; everything is malleable; everything is apparent and conscious.

Part three will continue with strategic approaches to innovation.