To Innovate, You Need the Courage to Step Backward

When we think of innovation, we tend to associate it with forward motion. We may envision it as a leap ahead—a radical breakthrough that happens quickly—or, more realistically, as a steady march forward, during which a series of small advances and refinements eventually lead to a desired outcome.

But in observing a number of leading designers and innovators over the past couple of years (including individuals such as Yves Behar, Bruce Mau, and Dean Kamen, and firms such as IDEO and Smart Design), what has struck me is how often these change-makers seem to be moving sideways and even backwards, in addition to moving forward. In my own head, I’ve started to think of this as a kind of “catalyst’s dance”—with the most common version of it being a nifty (and quite difficult) four-step.

The ability to question fundamentals has never been more important

More often than not, this dance begins with taking a step back—to reconsider existing realities, to challenge basic assumptions, and above all, to question everything. Designers seem to be particularly adept at questioning (hence the joke, How many designers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Does it have to be a light bulb?), but it’s also an ingrained behavior among all sorts of innovators, including the most creative business executives. (One recent study published in the Harvard Business Review found that a key characteristic of creative executives—and the one that seemed to have the greatest impact—was the inclination and willingness to question everything).

While this first “questioning” step may seem like an easy one, it actually can be quite difficult to ask basic “why” and “why not” queries. There’s pressure, particularly in business, to avoid any appearance of being naïve. And questioning established practices doesn’t always sit well with colleagues accustomed to doing things a certain way. Moreover, there’s an art to asking the right kinds of catalytic questions (which will be the subject of a future post). But difficult as it may be, in today’s volatile marketplace, the ability to step back, question, and rethink basic fundamentals—What business are we really in? What do today’s customers actually need or expect from us?—has probably never been more important.

Of equal importance is the second step of the catalyst’s dance—which might be thought of as a “step to the outside.” Design thinkers at IDEO and elsewhere have demonstrated the value of observational research in helping innovators to ferret out people’s deep unarticulated needs. While this practice is sometimes labeled with design terms such as “user understanding” or “empathic research,” I prefer the word applied by the author and design consultant Dev Patnaik—“caring.” At this second stage of the process, innovators must care enough about people’s actual lives and needs to be willing to step outside the corporate bubble and immerse themselves in an environment where they can watch and learn. Doing so will tend to yield fresh insights that begin to address those big questions previously raised.

While this “caring” phase is critical, it often doesn’t yield the big breakthrough idea right away. Anecdotal stories from innovators—supported by the latest research on creative thinking—suggests that truly original ideas tend to come from taking what we’ve learned and synthesizing it with other ideas, influences, and creative instincts. This is the “connect” stage, wherein elements and ideas that may seem unrelated begin to come together to form “smart recombinations” (to use a term coined by the designer John Thackara).

There is no shame in going backwards or sideways

Think of the innovative Nike Plus system: The company started by questioning its basic offerings and then proceeded to the “caring” stage (using ethnography to learn firsthand about runners’ on-the-go information needs), but it took another step for Nike to smartly combine a running shoe with an iPod. This third step in the dance can be thought of as a “step together” move—when everything comes together to form the new idea. Neurological studies tell us that some people are better than others at making these insightful mental connections, but all of us are capable under the right conditions of getting to big “aha” moments. When it happens, it may feel great—but it’s not the end of the dance.

The fourth step—after question, care, connect—is to “commit.” It’s at this point that the innovator takes a bold step forward, by giving form to an idea and actually putting it out there in the world. Whether it’s a sketch, a prototype carved from foam rubber, or a sophisticated CAD model, what matters is the act of quickly and unflinchingly giving form to an idea so that it can be passed around, evaluated, tested. This is perhaps the trickiest step of the dance. Given that most new ideas are imperfect and most prototypes flawed, the likelihood of a misstep is so high as to be almost a given.

Still, innovation is unlikely to occur unless the person or team behind the idea is willing to commit, without hesitation, to taking this uncertain fourth step. If it turns out the idea is not ready for prime time, it may be necessary to once again step back—and perhaps even to repeat the whole question-care-connect-commit cycle, in the effort to keep learning and refining. What the experienced innovator understands is that there is no shame in going backwards or sideways, and what might seem to be a setback is nothing of the kind—it’s just a step in the dance.

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