June 21, 2007

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How do you know if an idea is innovative?

How do you know if an idea is innovative? You might feel that your pet
idea is amazing, only to find out it’s not only obvious but can
already be found in several open-source implementations. (Been there,
done that, got the T-shirt!) Patent searches are difficult because
patents are intentionally vague. Your best bet? Ask subject experts,
or just put it out there and see if anyone complains. As long as it’s
innovative to some people, it’s okay, right?

I wonder if the most missed opportunities, however, are when we
don’t think an idea is innovative, when we think it’s blindingly
obvious to everyone. Some things come naturally to us because they
makes sense given our experiences and our situation, and we forget that
even if we’re in the same situation that other people find themselves in,
our experiences give us a unique perspective on things. How can we
recognize our innovative ideas if we think we’re ordinary?

Here’s what research into creativity and expertise has to say:

The empirical evidence on creative achievement shows… that
individuals require a long preparatory period during which they master the
relevant aspects of that domain until they are even capable of making
creative contributions to the domain. … Extended education is, thus,
necessary even to recognize major innovations and distinguish them from
products matching acknowledged achievements previously created by earlier
eminent performers. – K. Anders Ericsson, 1998

In order to recognize that something is new, you should know the old
stuff. Pretty straightforward, right? That can involve a lot of
work. Even in science and other well-documented fields, people specialize
because they can’t keep track of everything going on. Where’s the pay-off
for this work?

…the extended education of expert performers primarily
elevates the level of play and search by providing the appropriate tools
and the rich knowledge about previous achievements. – K. Anders Ericsson,
1998

The more you know, the more you can play with, the wider the solution
space you can explore. Every programming language you learn opens up new
worlds for you. Every tool you try out adds value in a combinatorial
explosion. The further you go, the likelier it is that you come up with
ideas that few other people could have come up with, too. And the more you
learn about what’s already there, the better you’ll be at recognizing when
something’s new.

Right. But you don’t have time to do that. So what can you do?

Here’s how I deal with personal-level ideas:

If an idea seems innovative to me, it’s probably innovative for at least
one other person. If I can, I want to find that person and make his or her
life better. ;) If I come across lots of people for whom this is a new idea, I
might really have something good on my hands.

If an idea seems obvious to me, I’ll keep it in mind anyway, and I’ll
share it with other people. Chances are, it’s innovative for at least
one other person, etc. Sometimes I’ll realize I have cool ideas by
just talking to other people and thinking about how we deal with things
differently. I usually share the details of my little idea as a blog
entry because I just know I’m going to run into more people who
want to hear about it. I almost always come up with even better ideas
while I’m describing the original one. So I really like sharing
ideas with people, especially people who share their own ideas with
me. We all grow.

I’m not too concerned yet about Really Innovative Ideas that need IP
protection. I’m just practicing the skills of coming up with good ideas
and making them happen. I have a growing collection of the cool ideas I
spot or come up with, which I keep on index cards because index cards are
the best for rapidly flipping through stuff. Starting with the idea that
everything is innovative to somebody, the task then becomes
one of filtering through this whole list of ideas to find one or two that
can make someone incredibly happy. Sometimes I’ll start with that someone
in mind, and then my brain will kick into high gear and come up with
suggestions. (I love that!) Sometimes I’ll start with a cool idea
and then, just for fun, see what I can apply it to and who might like it.

Is an idea innovative or not? I don’t think it really matters to me. I
have a feeling it should matter—after all, I’m currently doing my
master’s research—but I’m much more interested in whether it’s
worth it to find people it’s new to (and everything is new to
someone, which you know if you’ve ever tried teaching someone division),
and what else I can do with the idea. That’s why anyone who spends
a few minutes with me at a networking event will come away with
bucketloads of ideas and things to check out if they give me any sort of
clue about their interests. That’s why I love listening and sharing
stories, because that helps me add people’s experiences to my idea pool
and lets me exercise my brain.

And then it becomes true: the more I learn and try out, the
more ideas I have to play with, the more clearly I can recognize when
most people will think that an idea of mine is crazy or cool. And
that’s not work – that’s fun! So I think that’s a great way to
practice being innovative. Don’t worry if your ideas are innovative
or not!
You’ll always be able to find people who’ll think those
ideas are new and useful (although in some cases, you’ll have to look
very very hard). If these ideas make your life better, go for it. If
they make other people’s lives better, great! As you practice, you’ll
learn more and more about what other people think and how other
people think, and you’ll get not only a better sense of what’s new but
also what could be!


Ericsson, K.A. (1998) “The scientific study of expert levels of
performance: general implications for optimal learning and creativity”,
High Ability Studies, 9:1, 75—100

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