Innovating Through the Looking Glass

For the innovator, imagining, and imaging something not yet created, is the essence of our work.

“I only wish I had such eyes … To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too!”

In Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass the White King appears as a tireless, if hapless, inventor. He develops a bee-hive, a mouse trap, and a new method for getting over a gate. Yet he lacks that most important ability of the innovator - to see what is not there!

For the innovator, imagining, and imaging something not yet created, is the essence of our work.

See the negative space

My wife Alison is an artist. She regularly delights friends with her ability to capture the essence of a person, an animal or place with her imaginative but accurate style. Personally, I cannot draw well, so once I joined an insightful and rewarding course based on the remarkable book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” by Betty Edwards. Early in the course one learns a curious, but basic, technique - to draw what is not there!

For example, when drawing a chair, someone like myself with an untrained or unpracticed eye, can make a simple error. We draw the chair leg, or the back, not as we really see it, but as we think it should look, based on our experience of chairs. We believe we are drawing what is in front of us, but in fact we are drawing largely from our memories and expectations. As a result we don’t look for, and cannot convey, the unique shape of the real chair.

Through the course, we learn to draw, not the chair, but the spaces around the chair. Rather than trying to outline the legs, we draw the odd shapes that the legs make in contrast to the floor and walls. Where before we would draw the curved frame of the chair back, now we draw the spaces between the frame’s components. These spaces are new shapes that we have never seen before - or never looked at closely - and so we can only draw them as we see them, not from memory or experience. And what emerges? The best drawing of a chair that I have ever done!

With practice we can apply a similar idea to our innovative thinking. It does indeed take effort to do this, but it works.

Innovation requires you to imagine something not yet created. Here's how.

See the spaces around technologies

You can start by looking at how new technologies have affected some sectors but not others. Mobile technology, for example, has revolutionized food delivery and taxis - two common urban services. What other services do we use in cities that could benefit from mobile devices? I have seen an SMS service that enables you to find a public toilet! That’s a service which certainly did not exist before, and a very useful one. Look to expand technologies which have been successful in one sector to new sectors which are still lagging behind.

Imagine the opposite

When I was learning to draw a chair using negative space, in essence I was learning to draw the opposite, the “not-a-chair” if you like!

Personally, I find this technique very useful in innovative thinking too. Take a familiar problem or a familiar solution and simply imagine what the opposite would be. From there, you may find a new insight into how the problem works and how you can shake up the space. For example, I always enjoy having this discussion with people creating new products and services.

  • If your service is meant to be collaborative, what would it be like if it was used by just one person on their own?
  • If your product is intended to be very low cost, what would it be like if it was very expensive?
  • If your technology enables a super-fast solution to a problem, what would it be like if, instead, it slowed everything down and allowed time for more reflection and insight. (Think of the slow-food movement, which has recently transformed the thinking of many upscale chefs.) These are only examples, but I think you will enjoy using this technique. I certainly find it leads to very insightful and fruitful discussions. And, I trust, to rather more useful inventions than those of the White King.

I will be speaking to the Boston TDWI Chapter on Thursday June 18 at the Roscoe Brady Lecture Hall (Genzyme Center) about “Business Discovery & The Analytic Organization”. I hope to see you there! Click HERE to register.

Photo credit: Toronto Public Library Special Collections / Foter / CC BY-SA


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