Why Innovation Is Hard

First, it's not your fault. Innovation is an oft-discussed, but misunderstood idea. As someone who has spent much of his career working in the innovation space, I used to wonder why this was so difficult for most of us. But then I realized we spend our entire lives being trained to not innovate.

Breaking Bad

The fact is, we spent our entire young adult lives learning that someone else has the answers. Consider a young kid asking his or her parent the question: "Why is the sky blue?" If the kid is lucky, they will get an initial answer regarding the refraction of light and diffusion of the blue spectrum, but inevitably a kid will follow it up with the most dreaded three-letter word in the English language: "Why?"

Ultimately, even with the most engaged parent, the answer will eventually devolve to the default parental favorite: "Because I said so." What is the lesson here? To stop asking "why." It won't get you anywhere.

And this lesson is reinforced throughout our lives. From grade school forward we are taught that someone else has the answers-and they can determine our academic success, so we better pay attention to what they say. Consider that even the way we set up our classrooms teaches us that we should look to someone else "in power" to get our answers. Thirty small desks facing one large desk in the front of the classroom-and the person at the big desk has the answers, can grade us and determine our success. If you give the wrong answers or get out of line, this person is there to break the bad and help us get back in line with the right answers. With that said, I believe great teachers are there to guide and encourage our Socratic thinking and are the gatekeepers to a more innovative society. I know many great teachers, but the system doesn't support them in teaching the way they would like. Grades matter too much to our societal success, so it's a systemic flaw teachers must operate in. (and yes, I'm ending this sentence with a prepositional phrase)

So it's no small wonder that we learn very quickly to look to others for answers, and learn that asking "why" will get us nowhere. As time goes on, we accept that answering "correctly" will get us ahead in life and rocking the boat will lead to our decline.

That's why it's not your fault. Asking someone else for the "right" answers is not only rewarded, it's necessary. In essence, we are trained out of our innovative brains.

The River of our Experience

As we go on in life, it becomes more and more difficult to innovate for the same reason. I liken it to rain drops hitting a hillside. As the rain hits the hillside, it carves a path, albeit small at first, then larger and deeper over time. This is like our brains. As we are hit with stimulus, we learn how to react. The path grows deeper and deeper over time as we learn that responding the same way to an input will produce the same results. Redirecting the rain drops gets harder as time goes on because the river of our experience grows deeper.

So why would the rain drop ever take a different path? Trauma. If the hillside were to be reshaped by a mudslide, the path would change. If the land were to be reshaped by bulldozers, the path would change. The river of our experience would be forced to find a new way to flow. This is proven time and time again in studies that show that people almost never make meaningful life changes in life beyond a certain age without a traumatic event to force it: birth, death, divorce, health, etc. This is also how plants are grown to repopulate burn areas: they are traumatized repeatedly with flood and drought to make them more resilient for repopulation.

This is the key to rediscovering your innovative brain: learn to falsify your own trauma. Now obviously I'm not suggesting you traumatize your life so you can learn to innovate better because that would be extremely messy. But you can learn to falsify your own smaller "traumas" to help you think differently about things you do every day. Eat ice cream for breakfast. Wear red socks. Take the slow road to or from work. Write a poem at midnight. By breaking the routine, we can begin to grow comfortable with smaller "traumas" that will help us shift our perspective.

Consider the example of driving to work a different way. When you drive the same way every day, you likely get on auto-pilot, ultimately forgetting the drive and just arriving at work. Now think about the time you encountered road construction on the way to work, or an unexpected traffic jam that forced you to re-route your daily drive. Chances are the "trauma" forced you to think differently, adapt and you likely remember the details of that event with much greater clarity than you do the typical commute. You noticed the details of a neighborhoods you passed, the different traffic patterns, or the fields, flowers and fauna along the way. Maybe this even became your new route. It was this false trauma that forced you to think and engage differently, and if you can find ways to do this every day, you can help redirect the river of your experience into something new.

Training for Innovation

For all the lip-service, tongue-wagging, buzzwording, declaring and overusing of the word "innovation," we are never trained on techniques how to innovate. And in my experience if you receive formalized training, it's a scrubbed-down, sanitized and sanctimonious nod to the same academic rigor that landed us here to begin with, rife with quotes from great minds who blazed their own trails, but none of the bacon that makes the burrito great. You can't sanitize this.

That's why I spent the last two years making my own training and engaging groups on techniques to make innovation easier. Innovation is sloppy. It doesn't fit neatly in a box. There are dozens of techniques I have used throughout my career, and while some might work for you, they might not work for your neighbor. That's why there are dozens in my presentation and the goal is to find one that works for you. And some of them aren't nice to say in polite, everyone-wins-a-participation-ribbon, homogenized society. I say them anyways because they work.

And finally, innovation isn't for everyone. And that's okay. That's what makes our society great. That's what makes "Team Us" work. But if you're looking to unlock your innovative potential, consider the techniques that worked for you and share those as widely as possible. Start the process of untraining what you have learned. Be your own teacher. Ask why. Falsify your trauma. Change the river of your experience. And unlock your innovate brain.

Team Us!

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