One of the biggest myths about creativity and innovative thinking is that people are born with it. I happen to disagree and firmly believe creativity and innovation, like almost everything else in life, can be learned over time. I believe this because I felt my self become much more creative while studying the lives of creative and innovative people such as Steve Jobs, Walt Disney and Philo Farnsworth. Throughout my study of these people and their stories of innovation, I was surprised to hear a few recurring themes. One of these was the idea of connecting the dots (more on that later). Another was the concept that innovation occurred at the intersection of two or more generally unrelated products or ideas. As a result of this insight, the ideation framework I like to call “InVENNtion™” was born.
- Draw a circle of your main topic of interest
- Draw another circle that overlaps the first with a secondary topic of interest (draw more if necessary; this is discussed below in the adjacent spaces section of this blog post)
- Think through this question: “What new ideas can be formed at the intersection of these two things?”
Here’s one example I’ll use to illustrate the concept of InVENNtion™: when Apple announces a new product, often they will mention the idea that their company is at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. Below is a short YouTube video of Steve Jobs talking about this idea.
To illustrate this intersection, I like to use Venn diagrams (hence the term InVENNtion™) because thinking through the implications of the diagram can lead to new insights. So if we think about this intersection between technology and liberal arts, we begin to realize it’s inspirational power.For most people, technology is often viewed in the following terms:
From this list you can see that technology is a “hard” term that often connotes the embodiment of various technical components. At its most basic level, technology is most often thought of in utilitarian terms – something that could be used to make living life more efficient. Now consider liberal arts. Words often ascribed to the term liberal arts include:
- Fine art
With the term liberal arts you feel a sense of beauty, elegance and refinement. Additionally, you can see that this term is comprised of things that uplift and inspire. In its truest form, liberal arts can be thought of as something that stirs the soul in a way that makes living life more enjoyable and meaningful. Now think about how those two terms – technology and liberal arts – could intersect. The intersection would have to be something technical, science and engineering intensive while also being beautiful, inspiring and philosophically meaningful. Sound familiar? That is the exact description that many Apple fans ascribe to the majority of their products. This is the whole idea behind InVENNtion™. By using this framework it’s easy to see that Apple’s culture and design strategy sits squarely at this intersection. Even from the very beginning, Steve Jobs had always enjoyed the beauty of calligraphy. This is what drove him to include sans serif fonts on the first Macintosh and is what led him to forming teams of poets, musicians and artists to work for him on many of his most famous projects such as the iMac.
One thing to note before we move on is that this example is still fairly broad and general in nature. For Apple, being at the intersection of technology and liberal arts is more of an abstract statement of company culture than a concrete guideline for ideation (though it certainly can help in ideation). However, the InVENNtion™ framework is useful at any level along the abstraction continuum. For example, if I were to have chosen the words “Car Stereo” and “Wifi,” I could come up with several specific ideas that might exist at the intersection of those two terms. One idea that comes to mind is having my car stereo sync music, movies, games and maps to a hard drive in my car by connecting via Wifi to my home network when it’s parked in the garage at night. If my car did this, I would never have to worry about losing internet connectivity while out on the road or the need to use cd’s or hookup my phone or mp3 player to listen to my music. It would all be synced automatically. Let’s now discuss how you can put this idea to work in your innovation efforts. A good way to start is to write out a circle and label it with your industry or domain of expertise. Then draw another circle and label it with another industry or domain of expertise. You can almost do this at random and still come up with interesting, and hopefully useful ideas. The car with wifi idea above was a completely made up random association that I made.
Though random associations can work, it’s often more useful to start with your own industry, product or realm of expertise then associate it with what some like to call “adjacent spaces.” These associations often happen much more naturally and can lead to quick and highly feasible ideas. For example, most of Apple’s major innovations have happened because they decided to enter a market (or “space”) that was adjacent to their core computer market. In 2001, Apple entered the personal music player market with the introduction of the iPod. In 2007, they entered the cell phone business with the introduction of the iPhone. Rumors now swirl that Apple’s next big thing will be an entry into the television market by introducing what some expect to be called the iTV (the name “Apple TV” is already taken). Similar to what Apple did, most businesses that have reached a revenue plateau, either through market share dominance or because the market they are in is about to decline, look to expand by building out adjacent spaces and incorporating them into their businesses. What adjacent spaces should your business consider entering? How long before those spaces converge naturally regardless of what your business does?
New (Sometimes Random) Spaces
Some managers are able to foresee the convergence of adjacent spaces. Steve Jobs was a master at anticipating these convergence points and often successfully capitalized on these changes. But let’s suppose that you want to really push the envelope of wild ideas. Let’s assume you want to think up wild ideas and you have the time and resources to go all the way – or what Google refers to as “Moon Shots!” In these cases, it’s often more useful to think through associations that at first may seem totally random but after careful contemplation may yield new and interesting ideas. Try it for yourself and if you delay judgement of the idea until later, you’ll likely generate a new and useful idea.
I hope the InVENNtion™ framework becomes as useful for you as it has been for me.