To disrupt the “status quo” (which includes accepted norms, behaviors, products, and services), it is of incredible importance to engage in more in-depth observation, questioning, association, networking, and experimenting. All of these are essential habits most innovators utilize, following the research of Clayton Christensen, professor of business at Harvard.
As we age, we tend to believe we fully know that we know the world around us. For example, after getting a good understanding of how to learn the simple mechanics of walking, talking, and eating, we hit a plateau of acceptance where our attention is no longer required. Similarly, after learning how to use daily life tools like pencils, shoes, and glasses, we make a rigid correlation of the device with its specific task. When we adopt the “cultural agreements,” we stop reflecting on obstacles and inconveniences we might improve upon, which might solve a current problem. We miss out on finding secondary applications of the tools we already have at hand.
The Wheeled Luggage
Here is an interesting case study for you. Anyone who has traveled in trains and airplanes understands how uncomfortable it is to travel without rolling luggage. However, you would be surprised that although sacks and wheels have existed for thousands of years, before 1972, no one had thought about putting rollers on that sack to create wheeled luggage. Bernard D. Shadow came to realize how practical it would be not to use brute strength to carry his baggage when he saw a worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid.
However, the more surprising part is that it didn’t become mainstream until 1987 when Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines 747 pilot, improved the design by integrating two wheels and a long handle to suitcases that rolled upright, rather than being towed flat like Mr. Sadow’s four-wheeled models. In the late ’80s, the growth of airports and the increase of women flying business trips increased the demand for such a practical product exponentially.
The truth is that the best indicator to unravel the potential of an existing product is by observing the interaction between users and items deeply. When watching how a fisherman uses his rod, a carpenter uses his hammer, or a painter utilizes his brush to come across ways of use that are different from what they were initially intended to do. Unfortunately, there is no way to possibly connect into the undiscovered potential of the current lifestyle we have and the objects that serve us daily unless we purposely rebuild the ability we once had during childhood to navigate the world in a better way… paying attention without being distracted.
It is relevant to say that once we believe we understand everything, there is to be seen or known in a specific task, people lose interest in questioning how we might find other applications for existing technology. Moreover, people stop wondering how things work the way they do in the first place. Only after having a better understanding is that we start wondering how we might get more from the objects that we have and how we might improve bugs, inefficiencies, and difficulties rather than just hoping that someone else solves that for oneself. The better questions you ask, the higher your chances of innovating.
As Clayton remarks in his book Innovators DNA, innovation does not necessarily emerge from experts’ predictions in the field, as is commonly thought. Building associations is the shortcut to compete with experts enclosed uniquely in a specific discipline or industry for an extended time. As much as consistent exposure fosters mastery, it also leads to cognitive biases that cut off the possibility of abstract knowledge from one industry or area of expertise into another.
Going further, networking increases your chances for a eureka moment while you triangulate your perspectives with people of different backgrounds and professions who may see what’s invisible to you. You don’t extend your knowledge by hanging out with like-minded people, but rather by meeting people from different backgrounds and perspectives.
Last but not least, experimenting is where ideas are implemented to see if they are feasible. You purposely need to try out new experiences and take apart products and processes searching for new data. Otherwise, how are you supposed to know what might work in the future? You can only know how different a system may be by modifying the current one and seeing how it behaves. For many entrepreneurs, the real challenges derive from the execution of their idea, either because of an engineering problem while trying to build a prototype or a marketing problem while trying to find a market for it. Consequently, this stage of the process requires the highest level of resilience and patience, as many obstacles start getting in the way between you and the future.
- Innovators DNA by Clayton Christense