I saw this cute girl sitting in a mall in Mexico City. She’s apparently learning about ‘the art of not giving a f*ck’, judging from her book cover. So she’s learning how to not give a fuck in subtle way, all while she is actually not giving a fuck what anyone else is thinking about her, by very subtly showing this book cover in public, completing the circle.

Now, if we would replace the words ‘not giving a f*ck’ by the word ‘innovating’, we get ourselves a nice parallel metaphor: it’s about the subtle art of innovating, ‘while innovating’A beautiful notion for how innovation should be carried out: we’re all students of the innovation journey, not necessarily its end products. Let’s see what I mean with that in more detail.

The journey of innovation

To stay in the metaphor of the innovation book, a lot of companies would probably be reading it right now, trying all sorts of hip buzz terms like hackathons, bootcamps, incubators, accelerators and what have you, in order to find the next unicorn, radically transforming their business from one day to the other. They’re playing it by the book, copying what others are doing, hoping to score the next big thing.

“Shit! We don’t have a digital lab, let’s get budget for one, everybody has one nowadays!”

Would be a typical sentence you could hear. Who will be working in this, what they will be doing and how priorities are set, nobody knows – the ‘me too’ movement is strong, also in innovation.

By ‘reading’ about innovation, starting to take actions, and trying to figure out what the book dictates for you, ironically enough, you’re already doing exactly what you’re reading about: ‘subtly innovating’. Why? Because you’re taking steps in changing your company, fighting the antibodies and trying to figure out what the future holds. Yet, it’s gets ironic when you realize that that ‘thing’ you thought would work (a shiny new lab, an expensive off-site innovation bootcamp, a brand new office, a 20+ innovation team) is not panning out the way you hoped it would.

…You think you failed.

What caused this failure? The people? The plan? The resources? All of the above? What could you have done differently? Was all of this for nothing? Ok. Maybe you screwed up a bit.

However, the important thing to take away here, is that you learned what didn’t work and along the way of trying new things, you discovered a lot of other stuff: about yourself, about your people, about the world around you, about technology and so many more elements that make up this new journey of yours. Sure, it was an expensive learning exercise and your ROI is close to zero. The costs of learning comes at its price, it seems.

You can’t always predict success

A lot of great inventions are the byproducts of experiments and projects that were setup to discover something else. The most famous example would be penicillin, which was discovered by Alexander Fleming by accident:

“…Returning from holiday on September 3, 1928, Fleming began to sort through petri dishes containing colonies of Staphylococcus, bacteria that cause boils, sore throats and abscesses. He noticed something unusual on one dish. It was dotted with colonies, save for one area where a blob of mold was growing. The zone immediately around the mold—later identified as a rare strain of Penicillium notatum—was clear, as if the mold had secreted something that inhibited bacterial growth.

And that was the start of penicillin as we know it. Other great examples are the Post its and Airconditioning (the latter was meant to keep paper from wrinkling in press rooms). Likewise, there are many more services and innovations that were discovered as result of serendipity (an unplanned, fortuitous discovery”). Another great example is the microwave, invented by Perry L. Spencer, which happened when ‘Spencer was fiddling with a microwave-emitting magnetron — used in the guts of radar arrays — when he felt a strange sensation in his pants. A sizzling, even. Spencer paused and found that a chocolate bar in his pocket had started to melt (source)

Perry L. Spencer, the inventor of the microwave

By putting in effort, time, sweat and tears, you might not have gotten the thing you were aiming for, but instead so much more in return: not only do you understand much more about the process of innovation, more so will you find new solutions that are a direct result of the energy you inserted – unplanned yet fortuitous discoveries!

Einstein formulated that Energy is the direct result of Mass times the speed of light (E=mc²), which means you need a lot of energy to produce even 1 gram of something solid (and vice versa – think about how powerful a TNT explosion is!). When you decrease the amount of Energy – while c is a constant – the produced Mass declines. I believe this too counts for innovation: by reducing the energy and time spent in innovation, your expected hard results (or ‘mass’) will be reduced too. And damn right you will need a lot of energy for getting to your first results. It’s not a walk in the park. It’s a walk in a crocodile-infested pond without a wetsuit.

“It’s not a walk in the park. It’s a walk in a crocodile-infested pond without a wetsuit.”

The subtle art of inn*vating

Going back to our girl, she’s clearly learning how to change her behavior while she’s bringing it in practice – even when she doesn’t reach her goals, dislikes the book or doesn’t understand its full contents, she’s still actively applying.

That’s the beauty of innovation: by practicing it and considering yourself a student of the process, you will innovate inherently, whether in the form of a super awesome new end product – possibly through serendipity – or by understanding more about yourself and the process itself.

Or to speak in the famous words of John Lennon:

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” – John Lennon