How to See What’s Not There

persist_thaumatropeThe other day I participated in an innovation day for the supply chain management division of a large company. The morning was spent on several presentations about how the group had innovated over the past year. One of the major innovations was a regular meeting in which suppliers and customers could talk with one another.

Now, I think this is a great idea, and I’m sure it made things more efficient for everyone. But as good an idea as it is, a regular communication meeting is not breakthrough innovation.

I see this kind of thing a lot — companies patting themselves on the back for breakthrough innovations that are really incremental improvements. Incremental improvement is powerful and positive, but it’s not the same as breakthrough innovation. Incremental change results from Reproductive Thinking. But for game changing innovation, you need Productive Thinking. Here’s the difference:

Reproductive Thinking is a way to refine what’s known. Think of continuous improvement, Six Sigma, or positive incremental change. It’s what you need for ferreting out inefficiencies, improving quality, and ensuring consistent outcomes. Reproductive Thinking is characterized by what the Japanese call kaizen, or good change.

Productive Thinking is a way to generate the new. Think of big AHAs, eureka moments, and breakthrough change. It’s what you need for seeding innovation, disrupting the marketplace, and changing the rules of the game. Productive Thinking is characterized by what I call tenkaizen, or good revolution.

Both types of thinking are useful, but if you want to create something truly new, Reproductive Thinking is the wrong tool. You need Productive Thinking.

When you were a kid, you probably had a thaumatrope. A thaumatrope isn’t a childhood disease; it’s a toy, popularized in Victorian England. It consists of a small disk with a picture on either side, mounted on string that lets you spin it. If you get the disk spinning fast enough, the two pictures merge. A common thaumatrope shows a bird on one side and an empty birdcage on the other. When you twirl the disk, you see the bird in the cage. Although there is no actual picture of a bird in a cage, you see it as clear as can be. You see a picture of something that isn’t there.

Productive Thinking is like spinning a thaumatrope. It’s a way of combining old ideas and insights to make something new.

Striving for reproductive efficiency is great. By all means, go for it. But don’t think that’s the same as game-changing innovation. You can’t fool yourself into being innovative. You need to learn how to think productively.

The Limits of Vision

Craig, my optician, started waxing about how great these new glasses were, how many famous (and smart) people owned a pair, and how he (being in good company) used them himself. He likes to talk, so he quickly moved on to his assessment of his suppliers. The SuperFocus people aren’t traditional eyewear manufacturers. They’re entrepreneurs — the new kids on the block. So when Craig offers suggestions for improvement, they usually respond with, That’s an interesting idea. We’ll try it.

sf-glasses-sm-300x174A couple of weeks ago I bought a pair of eyeglasses. They’re called SuperFocus. They’re the geekiest glasses I’ve ever seen. And the best I’ve ever seen through.

Like a lot of people my age, I need different strengths of glasses — for regular reading, computer reading, and road-sign reading. In my case I have yet another focal distance — for refering to my notes while speaking on stage.

My new SuperFocuses (SuperFoci?) handle all these situations, without the distortions of bi- or tri-focals, because I can actually focus them — something like binoculars — from infinity to watch-repair close, with a small slider on top of the bridge.

Sounds weird, but you get used to it pretty quickly. And it works. Your whole field of vision can be in perfect focus, whatever the distance.

I’m so pleased with my new specs that I went to order another pair.

sf-glasses-cu-150x150Craig, my optician, started waxing about how great these new glasses were, how many famous (and smart) people owned a pair, and how he (being in good company) used them himself. He likes to talk, so he quickly moved on to his assessment of his suppliers. The SuperFocus people aren’t traditional eyewear manufacturers. They’re entrepreneurs — the new kids on the block. So when Craig offers suggestions for improvement, they usually respond with, That’s an interesting idea. We’ll try it.

On the other hand, when he offers suggestions to the more established manufacturers, they often reply with, That wouldn’t work or That would be too expensive or People don’t want that.

So it turns out that eyeglasses makers are pretty much just like the rest of us. Too often, they limit their vision to what they already know.

The great Danish physicist, philosopher, and poet, Piet Hein, put it like this:

Experts have
their expert fun
ex cathedra
telling one
just how nothing
can be done.

Of course, none of us are immune. We’re all experts (or think we are) on something. How often have you been the expert who turns knowing into “no-ing”?