The Essential Elements of Innovation

March 30, 2016 Graham Simms


I’ve worked in R&D for over 50 years and during that time I’ve seen many changes in the workplace. Most of these changes are the result of the new technologies that have become available – computers, mobile phones, email, internet, etc. We all take advantage of the new technologies, but it can mean that we are constantly connected to work and this can eat into our time to think.  

However, now that I’m retired I have more time to think, especially when doing mundane chores like mowing the lawn. As my whole career had been devoted to the task of innovation, I asked myself this question: “What are the essential elements of innovation?” and while I was mowing, I hypothesised that there could be four elements, namely: knowledge, imagination, environment and good judgement.

Our knowledge is everything we know: we know our business goals.  We know the technology in which we are experts plus all of the learning that we had accumulated during the years of our formal education.  We have new data we gain from the experiments we do.  We can learn from the new technologies and discoveries that are in the public domain and we gain knowledge from the training courses we attend.

Our imagination is obviously the new thoughts and connections that come into our head - thoughts that nobody else has ever made before, it’s our dreams and visions that are unique to us. It is the source of our creativity and innovation.

Our environment consists of our laboratory and the equipment we use, but it’s also our organisation, our working relationships with our colleagues, our brand, our funding and the working atmosphere that we create.

We need good judgement because we have many choices to make every day and for each, we make decisions. Decisions that uphold our code of conduct, our integrity and trust.

As I continued to mow the lawn, I wondered how important these elements were. What would happen if we fell short with one of these elements, would that be a disaster for creating innovation? I then imagined reducing each one in turn:

Lacking the Knowledge We Need:

If we had a vivid imagination, a vibrant environment and impeccable judgement, but we lacked the knowledge we need, would that be a disaster? We risk creating science fiction – having wonderful ideas, but not having a clue of how to realise them. Science fiction films and books are full of ideas that seemed fanciful and impossible at the time, but many years later, new technologies have made them possible. One of Walt Disney’s quotations is “if you can dream it, you can make it.” So if we have a new idea for a product, but lack the necessary knowledge, we will need to find the experts who specialise in the technologies we need to make it happen. Albert Einstein was right when he said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” So maybe it wouldn’t be such a disaster if we lacked knowledge.

Lacking Imagination:

Let’s now imagine having an abundance of knowledge, but we lacked imagination. Would that be a disaster? We would have the ability to design experiments, we would have the resources to make prototypes, carry out experiments, gather data and write reports. But without imagination it's likely that nothing new would happen and we would be creating a library. We would be accumulating knowledge, but the lack of imagination would mean that we could not take advantage of that knowledge. We would be “data rich, ideas poor.” As for creating innovation, this scenario is a disaster.

Lacking a Good Environment:

So let's now imagine that we had an abundance of knowledge and a vivid imagination, but we lacked an environment, would that be a disaster? We’d then have no laboratory, no equipment, no funding, no brand and no work colleagues. We’d have amazing ideas that are feasible, but no resources. It’s then possible that we could become entrepreneurs. History has shown that many people have done just that: Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Anita Roddick, Coco Chanel, Walt Disney, and many more. So that scenario may not be a disaster for us, but it would be for our organisation!

However, a good working atmosphere in our environment is essential. I’ve observed that the coffee machine is often the centre-point in the laboratory, the place where people from the different disciplines meet, share stories and is the source of many “ahas.” Maybe we should rename these areas as “Network stations” and provide free coffee!

Lacking Good Judgement:

Lastly, let’s imagine that we had an abundance of knowledge, a vivid imagination and a vibrant environment, but we lacked good judgement, would that be a disaster? The answer is yes! This happened with banks in 2008 in which decisions were made that ruined the economy and their reputation – they had clearly made bad decisions! It also happened at Volkswagen where the engineers arranged for their software to sense when the vehicle was being tested for emissions and to make favourable adjustments to the engine's performance – that was a bad decision! This happened when consumer goods companies were fined for “price fixing” – that was a bad decision. Having bad judgement is a disaster.

Companies invest heavily to ensure it has an abundance of knowledge by hiring scientists and engineers who excel in their disciplines. They invest heavily in the working environment to produce well equipped laboratories, strong brands, provide research funding and create a vibrant organisation. They expect us to have good judgement and uphold their purpose, values and principles and training is given to help us to do that. But I do wonder what help is given to develop and build our imagination? And yet, as I discussed above, the lack of imagination is a disaster for innovation.

And it gets worse, modern technology has created a situation in which we are constantly connected and this eats into our thinking time. We need to protect our thinking time.

The Missing Ingredient: Time

There was an interesting study done by Professor Johnathan Schooler at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in which he wanted to measure people’s creativity. He asked them to think of many uses for a house brick as they could – use it as a paper-weight etc. He then divided his subjects into 3 groups: the first group were asked to rest for 2 minutes, the second group was given a heap of coloured Lego bricks and were asked to sort them by colour for 2 minutes, and the third group had 2 minutes to build a Lego house. They did these activities before continuing with the task of thinking of more uses for a house brick.

One of these groups became more creative, which one? The most new ideas, by a significant margin, came from those who’d performed the simple colour sorting task. Why? Because they were doing something mundane and this allowed their minds to wander. Those who did the worst were the ones who’d been given the most demanding task of modelling a house.

So if you want to generate more "aha" moments, you need to walk away from the problem – literally. Take a walk, go for a swim, have a bath, do the washing up or mow the lawn! By tuning your mind to a more creative state, you will create more "ahas" for yourself.

Developing our ability to use our imagination is critical to our innovative process. Every man-made thing we see around us started as a thought that was in someone’s head. We need to give ourselves time to think, but during our thinking time, we need to do something mundane to allow our minds to wander and to imagine wonderful new innovations.

About Graham Simms: Graham is a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK. He is a member of P&G's Victor Mills Society, recognizing its top technical leaders. Since retiring from P&G in 2010, he assists P&G with training courses and innovation workshops through YourEncore.

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