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The true source of success for your innovation projects

Pieter De Vocht

Innovation & Service Designer
Here you see a couple of Achillians exchanging ideas in an informal setting. Scenarios like this are the ideal breeding ground for new innovations to happen.
The old view
What names come to mind when you think of historical innovation starters? Perhaps you think of Nikola Tesla, Tamara de Lempicka or Archimedes. When we think of the great mind of the past, we often think of people who were solo innovators. They found new insights or worked on innovative creations without any interventions of other thinkers.  
The new view
In today’s world, we cannot say that great innovations come from individuals. Breakthrough creations are typically the result of many people’s creative contribution. One person’s brain on itself is an awesome machine. Cannot deny that. But still there are many limitations to what that one brain can perform, as opposed to the strength of many people’s brains working together. Minds working together -let’s call it the Internet of Brains (IoB). That’s the unique strength of our species and the main driver of innovation.
Dr Muthukrishna (London School of Economics) and Dr Henrich (Harvard) describe three types of innovation sources that we can find in the IoB: serendipity, recombination and incremental improvement.

1 Serendipity

Many innovations are just lucky accidents. Post-Its are an example of that. Someone at 3M accidently found an adhesive that seemed useless at first because it only stuck lightly. A few years later, another scientist at the company saw an opportunity to use the adhesive to create sticky bookmarks with it. This later became the Post-It we still use today. Post-Its, popcorn, Velcro,.. None of these inventions were planned. No one proposed a design challenge, but these accidents all turned out to be valuable.

2 Recombination

A new idea or a new design is always built upon knowledge you derived from others. Creativity is only the combination of pre-existing elements. Take Darwin. He would not have made his discoveries if he did not have access to previous writings from scientists before him.

3 Incremental improvement

Your smartphone is probably better-performing and it has more attractive features compared to the model you owned ten years ago. The same counts for your car, your headphones or your coffee machine. None of these products are designed from scratch. Their development takes knowledge from previous designs and combines this with e.g. knowledge on newly discovered technological improvements or societal trends.
The IoB is what enables these three sources of innovation to exist. The more connected that IoB is, the more innovative the creations of the people who take part in that IoB. A poorly connected IoB may be a family of which the members rarely communicate with each other. Chances are that their family gatherings are boring, uncreative events. On the opposite, think of family members who constantly make calls and share input on their Whatsapp group. They can easily organize creative family parties and activities because the family supports a constant stream of ideas.
Apart from the level of social interaction, also the ease with which ideas can be transferred (socially accepted to freely share, accessibility of info,..) and the deviations in info shared (how much does a copy differ from the original) play an important role in how innovative an IoB can be. A few deviations naturally are beneficial to innovation because variety gives room to serendipity, but too much variations can make the innovation process inefficient again.

Your collaboration setup

Your collaboration setup is what matters the most in order to innovate. To unlock the full potential of the 3 ingredients for a productive IoB, select the right people that make up your IoB and what roles they’ll take. Everyone has their own way of thinking and working, so everyone can provide another type of input to contribute to your innovation project. Aim for an IoB that consists of both organizers, learners and builders. People can shift roles as they like, but make sure that your innovation team has these roles covered at all times.
Moving ideas forward is what makes the organizers tick. They like to bring different people together and they want to spark others’ creativity. Organizers are well aware of the bumpiness of an innovation track and they can overcome the unavoidable obstacles that lie ahead.
These people get their energy from gathering information and insights. They may like to explore new cultures or industries, they perhaps want to observe people to learn about potential product or service improvements, or they might enjoy learning through trial and error (e.g. rapid prototyping).
The builders get to work with input they receive from the learners, and they are stimulated by the organizers. Builders typically have a deeper technical understanding of matters, so they can move past the first MVP a learner has made.
Innovation does not come from an individual who’s working undisturbed in her studio. It comes from the Internet of Brains. Minds working together under the right conditions (social connectedness, idea loyalty and idea deviations) and within the right team composition will result into more ‘lucky accidents’, more idea combinations and incremental improvements.

Pieter De Vocht

Innovation & Service Designer


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