Innovation: What Thinking Outside the Box Actually Means

June 25, 2009

The C&EN blog covers a recent innovation symposium. I generally find high-level discussions about innovation to be not terribly useful because they always seem to skirt the central issue, which I posted as a comment:

"You'll know you're being innovative if you feel uncomfortable."

That's the best advice on the subject of innovation I ever got. It came from a talk given at an innovation symposium held by a company at which I did a summer internship. Most speakers said something along the lines of "think outside the box", which when you really think about it is nothing more than useless tautology.

But one scientist offered the advice above. Now that's useful.

It's easy to lose sight of the fact that every single product we think of today as being innovative started out as a piece of junk almost nobody cared about. Stuff that ‘experts' in the field said could never work. Stuff that no serious person (or company) would ever waste time or money with.

The iPod entered a market with several of other digital music players and was not expected by most tech observers to do very well. Netflix is an innovative service – but if so, why didn't Blockbuster develop it instead? In both cases it's a mistake to confuse what now exists with what existed when the respective products were launched.

Now, just because you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean you're being innovative. You could be doing something merely stupid or criminal instead.

But if what you're now working on is widely-regarded as the 'correct' approach, you've either made it through the period of being uncomfortable with your innovative idea and others are starting to come around (congratulations!), or you're not being very innovative.