Mount Helicon for Entrepreneurs?

by jennifermshoop

In ancient Greek literature, poets in search of inspiration trekked to Mount Helicon, home to the muses of the arts.  This artistic ritual came to mind the other day when a business friend of mine shared that his organization had recently established an innovation department, and was spending a lot of time reading and thinking about inspiration: “Where does innovation come from?  What are the conditions that cultivate it?”

I had two separate and distinct thoughts.  One was that it might be impossible to identify these conditions.  Having recently read Daily Rituals, a book that presents the varied creative practices of different geniuses, artists, writers, and thinkers in short 1-2 page snippets, it was easy enough for me to say that it takes all kinds of kinds to create, and that all those different kinds have wildly different practices.  There’s no one artistic temperament: some live ascetic, monk-like existences, others indulge freely in drink and drug; some need social engagement, others recede from it; some are methodical about their artwork, “working” on regular schedules, while others might go months without producing anything and then create a lot all at once.  Now, I realize that artistic production and innovation are not necessarily synonymous with one another, and that we shouldn’t let that unexplained metaphor pass us by.  But at the same time, both revolve vigorously around principles of good design and are fueled by creativity and an ability to see the world around us (or some bit of the world around us) in a new and different light.  So, let’s accept, for now, that possibly flimsy logic, and push beyond.  Returning to the book: I instantly thought that perhaps innovation springs from a range of different contexts.  I thought about IDEO’s human centered design process, which truly begins from the ground up.  And then I thought about more the “lean startup” model, which posits that you can hedge your bets on a good idea — so long as you quickly and regularly test it and change tacks accordingly.  In these two models, innovation comes from two rather different processes.  At the same time, I would say that the only unifying tie that bound the miscellany of stories in the Daily Ritual book was that almost all of the creators afforded themselves some amount of “maker’s time” — that is, swathes of time dedicated only to creation, uncluttered by the noise of daily life.

So this led me to my second thought: perhaps there are certain general conditions that enable us to create and innovate and iterate more readily.  I began to think more critically about the times where things have really begun to “gel” or “click” or whatever the right motion is there — where new ideas come to a head, presenting themselves with a dramatic curtsy in that awesome moment where you realize: “YES, that’s what it is!  That just feels right!”  A couple of different useful contexts came to mind:

(1)  Structured time to talk through an idea or a cluster of ideas or a “cloud” of ideas — i.e., some nebulous mix of concerns and concepts that you just know you need to think about — with your smartest, most open-minded colleagues.  Sometimes you just need to sit down with your brain trust to talk through an idea from top to bottom, throwing everything out there.  (Everything.  Let it all hang out.  I recently floated the idea of trying to seek a federal charter for a national youth credit union so that we could create the ideal financial product for our teens, as there’s just nothing out there on the market that is meeting our expectations.  And we are a three-person organization with a fairly massive mentorship machine in place.  So — think big, too.)  You’ll be surprised at what comes out of the jostle and shake of ideas — people emphasizing new aspects of the problem or introducing new ones or going off the deep-end.  I’ve come through a lot of challenging points by talking things through with my wicked smart colleagues when I’ve suggested we block off an hour or two and really slog through something.

(2)  Implicit in the above, but: complete open-mindedness.  If you feel yourself constructing a wall that you won’t let yourself beyond (i.e., “no, we couldn’t offer our kids prepaid cards because schools will resist the idea of product placement and will probably be more comfortable with savings products anyway, which are almost indisputably well-received”), push beyond it and continue to explore.  Having colleagues that share that unbridled will to explore is an incredible gift, so you should seek them out in your organization or encourage this and lead by example.  (At my previous job, we occasionally encouraged one another to use the phrase: “Yes, and…”  — a technique from improvisational comedy that encourages comedians to build off what their cast-mates have just said to keep the story going rather than nipping things in the bud prematurely.)

(3)  To balance the structured brainstorm sessions — big greenswards of “maker’s time.”  Time to just tinker, think, read, reflect.  This was really hard for me to adjust to after living on manager’s time for so long; I felt like I was being unproductive.  But I really needed it in order to fulfill the duties of my role as Chief Innovation Officer.  And I continue to need to remind myself to set this time aside and leave it unencroached by the noise of email, checklists, and the like.  Sometimes I need to do other “things” to occupy myself physically during this time — exercise, or read articles, or jot down notes, or write open-ended Word documents to myself, or, dans la facon d’IDEO (in the IDEO way), write down a lot of post-it notes to capture a lot of different, distinct thoughts — but those mornings where I’ve cleared my schedule until noon or even later to really think through a specific problem or issue are inevitably the most fruitful part of my week.

(4)  Talk to a lot of people.  Like, a ton.  Our CEO, Ted, is an absolute networking beast.  He’s connected me with what feels like half of the city of Chicago and I’ve had the most incredible range of conversations as a result.  To be frank, maybe 10% or less of these conversations actually leave me thinking: “Oh, interesting, that helped me solve this problem.”  But they help me situate my thinking in really interesting ways.  For example, learning how for-profits orient themselves prior to an app launch helped me think through the launch of our app as a non-profit in a new and different way.  And learning about the metrics that gaming apps conventionally use to measure their engagement helped me think more critically about our app because I realized many of them did not apply or did not matter to our model.  Talking to a lot of people also helps you nail your pitch — great practice for delivering it to the big guns down the road.

(5)  Related to the above: read a lot.  And from a wide and varied range of sources.  You want to read the obscure blog post from a teacher in Missouri bemoaning the technology issues in her classroom, and the platitudes (or rants) from the CTO of a school district, and the blog written by the product manager of a new ed tech company, and the Washington Post’s op-ed on MOOCs, and the Tech Crunch article on a new Google acquisition, and everything in between.  Read, read, read.  And use Pocket to help with this — I tag all of the articles I read so I can quickly search my tags and call up articles I read that I want to reference down the road.

With this blend of practices and conditions, I’m convinced you can really drive innovation in your own organization.  The issue, I think, is that many organizations are not outfitted to accommodate this due to various institutionalized processes and rituals.  I’m curious to know how, for example, Coke handles their innovation team — does it function differently than most of the other units?  How so?