Dichotomies…

When was the last time you were in awe after reading a simple solution to a problem that had haunted you for days.. perhaps on StackOverflow, Martha Stewart’s website or in some book or forum? When was the last time you saw a product that changed by orders of magnitude how we do something like make a call, washing the dishes, driving a car? Do you have memories of things you experienced decades ago that you still cherish.. like a feature film, a song, a recipe?
How do people come up with solutions so elegant, products that charm and experiences so memorable? Are they simply more “innovative” from the get go?

What do you call something that is not innovative? Like most, I used to draw a blank on this question. Pause for a second and think about it. Write it down and post it as a comment on this blog.
So what did you think? Some like to call it “copied” or “boring” or “just useless”. After going thru Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull – I realized that the dichotomy here is between “innovative” and “derivative”. A non-innovative work (or derivative work) is not something bad or something to frown upon. The word is derivative and its okay to be derivative if that is your aim. Sometimes you are tasked to copy something in the first place. A lot of times you aren’t and to realize true innovation, you need to adapt non-derivatory behavior.
I wanted to explore what pulls us towards derivative work? At this point in life, I think the biggest contributor towards creating derivative work is the fear of failure. If something has worked for others, it seems, its less risky to derive from that work than to do our own. It is especially true if you are scrutinized for each hour your spend on a task and not producing meaningful result.
Digging deeper into “fear of failure” takes us to a more important factor towards being derivative: ego. Ego not just in individual sense but in a broader, corporate sense as well.
Our minds are essentially survivalist. We would naturally err towards safer bets to ensure survival. Failure is the antithesis of survival. Nothing threatens our survival more than the possibility of failure. Ego then, is the tendency within us to avoid failure by appearing strong even in the face of strong evidence against. Ego induces fear of failure. Ego makes you induce fear of failure in your team.
To do meaningful work ego has to be checked in at the door to your work.
When you take ego out of the work equation, suddenly failure doesn’t seem like a bad idea. What will be your natural reaction if I told you that its okay to fail? What if I told you its not ‘you’ that is failing, just your solution. What if I told you that there is no pressure to be ‘right’ – at least not on your first and only try? What if there is no incentive for doing it right as fast as you can in less tries? What if I told you you don’t have to justify every hours with a bulls-eye success? Pause and reflect. If you want, drop a comment in the comment box. Then read on.
Many people at this point would think its not possible (so did I). Most of them are right because if you are a master plumber, you ought to be fixing them pipes because you charge per hour. Similarly, if you have a niche in systems administration – most probably you cannot afford to not fail because every hour is important. In a lot of cases, it is ‘expected’ from the services industry to get it right in the first try. A topic for another day.
Some other would simply fall to mediocrity and the change in situation would not affect them – failure or not, it’s the same (e.g. how most Governments work). They have job security so they aren’t thinking about innovative or derivative.
Some would find it as an opportunity to slack off and entangle themselves in some other business ‘on-the-side’ which subjects them to the same constraints – because while we are essentially survivalist, we know that resource hoarding ensures survival – hence would always want to take the hoarder approach. Make more money, rip off any clients you can, sell other people’s free open source code at a premium price to others – that kind of thing. Behind every power struggle, there is a survivalist, too.
So, coming back to the topic you can’t possibly pull out innovative solutions out of the hat only because I told you it’s okay to fail. You will need to develop discipline. You will need to rank up hours. And eventually, you will start to ‘try out more things’. This is where you will inadvertently start to ‘experiment’.
The moment you embark on the scientific method (of experimentation), you take your first steps towards ‘innovative’ work.
But running experiments that others have already run or doubling the effort in the wrong direction is not going to lead you to an innovative solution. We have established our first feedback loop by establishing experiment driven work. Our second feedback loop will be essential, honest, candid feedback. Having checked in the ego at the door, it’s not only easier to absorb negative feedback from experiments but from people as well who hold an immense treasure of experiences and knowledge. It will also help you develop candor and give that candid, honest feedback.
A culture of candor and honesty fueled by passion to experiment and fail early breeds innovation.
Together, experimentation and candor will create an atmosphere of academic honesty and discipline. This will become a breeding ground for truly innovative solutions.
So, the next time you stumble upon a really good answer on Stack Overflow that saved you hours, pause for a second – know that the person checked in his ego at the door, rolled up his sleeves to experiment, failed (possibly several times) and learned from failures, succeeded and wrote that answer. There were honest people around her that gave her candid feedback. She did not suffer from microwave mentality. A topic for another day.

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