Sunday, November 17, 2013

Innovation's Escape Velocity

Our brains work in a variety of ways, and things that are hard to understand using one paradigm (for example, analytic writing) can be easily illustrated using another (for example, analogies or diagrams). 

It is really tough to use words to explain to people how to move away from their comfort zone and invent at the edges of their expertise.  It is easy to work in a field we know a lot about, and with each step away from our comfortable core, the pull back to the center grows stronger.  As we wander away from things we know will work, as we move away from our core competence, the risk of a magnificent failure increases..  Since few people have truly internalized the truth that every success is built on a foundation of failures, few people are willing to risk magnificent failure in order to achieve magnificent success.

At Awesomeness Fest, Terry Tillman did a presentation where he used a simple diagram describing how to get from what we know to what we desire.  This triggered a connection for me to the questions I've been working on regarding our reluctance to move outside of our zone of comfort or competence.  It also strongly connected with a concept I've been developing about "high velocity innovation".  I quickly wrote "So is there a psychological 'escape velocity'?; How does this relate to high velocity innovation?"  I then drew a graph (excuse the informality of the drawing):

Looking at the drawing, imagine that "core" is analogous to planet earth, a source of enormous gravity that not only nourishes and protects us, but also holds us back.  The green zone is the area above the earth where we are too low to enter orbit.  If we use our energy to reach a height within the green zone, we may get somewhat above the earth, but are destined to fall back to it.  The red zone is a zone of stable orbit (we could complicate it by adding the further distinction between low earth with periodic boosts and geosynchronous).  Within the red zone, we're able to distance ourselves from the earth (or our core area of comfort/competence), but we are still controlled by it -- we still haven't escaped it's gravity well.  Beyond the red zone, we have reached escape velocity.  We are able to move well beyond our core competency and sense/explore/experience new core areas.  Note that hitting escape velocity does not mean that we cannot return to earth -- we can.  It does mean that we are able to discover things that are impossible within earth's gravity well.  Critically, once we escape the gravity well, it takes no additional energy to stay outside of it -- we need to find our way, determine how to keep breathing and stay nourished, but the biggest energy required, by orders of magnitude, is in the mere act of escaping our core comfort zone.

How does this relate to innovation?  Directly.  Platitudes like "think outside the box" leave us, at best, in a stable orbit around "the box".  Half-efforts at innovation and fear of leaving our comfort zone have us expending energy but never escaping the green "fall back" zone.  It is only by adopting a "think different" attitude and braving the unknown that we can escape the confines of our core comfort zone.

Sometimes an analogy teaches us a lot, but we need to be careful not to import into our thinking the limitations inherent in the thing we drew analogy to.  In this case, the gravity well illustration is terrific, but we can do one thing with our creativity that scientists cannot yet do with gravity:  We can reduce the pull of the core.  Scientists do not know how to reduce the required escape velocity from earth by reducing the earth's gravity, and it is on this point that we must leave the technical strictures of this analogy behind.

We can examine our core beliefs and fears; we can reduce their pull by understanding that they are holding us back.  In short, innovation can happen by increasing our velocity away from our core ideas OR by decreasing the pull those ideas have on us.  Of course, in the real world innovation will always include at least a little bit of each.

Let's illustrate this concept with Newton's "Laws".  These laws were considered inviolate until scientists began to understand relativistic and quantum effects.  It turns out that the laws are not laws at all, but rather good descriptions of physical phenomenon outside of relativistic speeds and quantum effects.  However, generations of scientists learned these as laws.  Some of the laws might seem inconsistent with scientific observations, but scientists tried to find ways to square these observations with the laws -- resulting in a "fall back" to the core beliefs.  Later, scientists looked for explanations that were in addition to the laws, seeking in effect a stable orbit around the core beliefs.  Finally, some scientists reduced the importance of these core beliefs and increased their efforts to research the universe beyond the core beliefs -- those scientists reached escape velocity and in doing so, reduced for all scientists the gravity or pull of the Newtonian core beliefs.  Note that the same scientists created a couple of new cores, each with their own pull.

There is danger is staying too close to the comfort zone -- the risk that the comfort zone will prevent real innovation.  The good news is that it is never too late to reduce the core's pull or to increase your velocity of innovation.

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