Innovators Must be Omnivores and Thieves

When I say that innovators must be omnivores, what I really mean is that they must be both omnivorous readers (not eaters) and people who seek out a wide-range of experience. This is one of the several things I learned at a fascinating lecture by Columbia University Business School professor, William Duggan. Duggan has written Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement, in which he explores how the brain achieves insight by combining knowledge and experience in new ways. The central question of Duggan’s work is how do people get really good actionable ideas?

These actionable ideas begin in a flash of insight. Duggan is interested in how the brain achieves that flash of insight. As he pointed out in his lecture, insight most often happens when you least expect it. And, insight rarely occurs on command. Above all, it cannot happen in the absence of certain prerequisites:

1. Knowledge and Experience: If you want to be an innovator, you need to arm yourself with a wide range of knowledge and experience. Furthermore, you need to master at least one discipline. It’s when you apply knowledge or experience from a far-flung field to your own area of expertise that you are more likely to achieve breakthroughs. Duggan was adamant that these required inputs are just as effective when obtained through study as through experience, and gave the example of the 24-year old Napoleon who had an impressive insight into successful military strategic when he was newly-graduated from the military college and lacking in combat experience.

2. A Calm Mind: Insight rarely occurs when you are focused on trying to achieve it. You are more likely to have a flash of insight when you’ve cleared your mind of distractions or are perfectly relaxed. This explains why insights more often than not happen in the shower or during recreational activity rather than in an official brainstorming meeting at work. However, for those truly interested in innovation, Duggan believes that you can increase the opportunities for insight by training in the martial arts, yoga or meditation, because they teach the practitioner the discipline necessary to empty the mind of distractions.

Once you have the flash of insight, the next critical step in the process of innovation is what Duggan called Resolution, in which you have a complete picture of what needs to be done to put your insight into action and then you do it. This, of course, is where many a good idea dies a premature death. Either you haven’t fully grasped all that is necessary to put your insight into action or you lack the requisite discipline to act.

As with many things in life, persistence pays here. Giving the example of the founders of Google, Duggan pointed out that while they had an important early insight that formed the foundation of what we know today as Google, it wasn’t until later (after many iterations and some dead ends) that Sergey Brinn and Larry Page made the breakthrough that transformed Google from another cool search engine into a truly innovative license to print money.

Duggan’s approach is consistent with that of earlier thinkers (and innovators) such as Louis Pasteur who once famously said “Chance favors the prepared mind.” But Duggan goes one step further: he explicitly says that innovators are thieves. They steal from others, combining what they take in new and different ways to achieve a breakthrough. Citing T.S. Eliot* and using examples as varied as Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Napoleon Bonaparte and Brinn & Page, Duggan explains how they “stole” ideas from others and created something new through their unusual combination of existing elements.

In other words, think of insight as the mashup your brain does that leads to innovation. Best of all, this requires no expensive technology whatsoever.

*For the literary-minded among my readers, here’s the background on the reference to T.S. Eliot, taken from The Sacred Wood:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

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