Asking Why Not?
Innovation involves a systematic process of work, as well as one ingredient I will call the “secret sauce” of the innovative process. As is true of any process of the mind, this magic ingredient involves a thought process, a mindset, and I have found this particular “key” mindset to be at the root of any breakthrough leading to innovation.
The methodology leading to a sustainable innovation follows this path: 1) understand the problem, 2) observe real life experience of the current challenge, 3) visualize the innovation, 4) evaluate and refine the innovation, and 5) implement
the innovation. These five basic steps can be applied to the major breakthroughs we call innovative.
IDEO, the award winning design and development firm that brought the world the Apple mouse has demonstrated that this deceptively simple methodology works for everything from creating simple children’s toys to launching e-commerce businesses. But what is the spark, the fuse, the “aha!” moment, the epiphany, the light-bulb catalyst, the “secret sauce”, or the “key” to innovation?
The key to innovation was actually given to us clearly by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo kept a notebook (as did Galileo, Darwin, and other innovators) and wrote his ideas down, no matter how trivial or inconsequential. He tied his notebook around his waist and it served as his constant companion. (illustration found at http://quovadisblog.com/2010/01/guest-post-leonardos-notebook/).
Leonardo knew that focused observation was a powerful pathway to innovation. In one margin he wrote he was taking a break from work “perche la minestra si fredda”….”because the soup is getting cold.” Really? Sure it is a great reason to stop working, but why write it down? And did he think that anyone would read it? But that was what he did. Seemingly, no idea or observation was trivial to Leonardo.
Leonardo observed everything. His famous notebook pages reveal hundreds of pictograms, sketches, phrases, musical notes, drawings, doodles, and other reflections. Not only did he observe, he intentionally observed. He made time in his life to ponder. We know this because he wrote his observations down.
Leonardo offers us the “secret sauce” to innovation in his notebooks. Leonardo’s most often used word was “perche?”…”why?” You find this word over and over again in his writings. One entry begins, “Perche li cane…?” “Why does a dog…?” It was not enough to observe, but he also questioned “Why?” And, as we investigate his notebooks, we learn that he went beyond “Why?” and would then seek to explore “Why not?”
In this process, da Vinci reveals that the “secret sauce” of innovation was his mindset to question “Why?” and “Why not?” He would then interpret and intuit shades of meaning to divine their underlying motivations or needs.
Leonard posed difficult challenges to himself. He confronted tough tasks. For example, he tried to describe the tongue of a hummingbird. He attempted to describe the experience of thirst.
He was not afraid of problems and might even be described as a problem creator—but those problems he created were for him to ponder and for his own disciplined study of the challenges of life. The evidence demonstrates that once he identified the problem, through observations, sketches, and experimentation, he sought an innovative solution.
We are tempted to think of these achievements and say, “yes, but he was Leonardo da Vinci!” True, but Leonardo was also a very real person that came from humble and ordinary circumstances. He was raised between two homes. His famous practice of writing backward has been explained as a possible example of dyslexia, or possibly evidence of being self-taught in reading and writing.
Leonardo did not complete some of his innovative projects. In fact, he started a lot of things he never finished. But, what is important to me as a student of innovation is that he started them. One could even say he was a failure, since he never achieved his life’s dream to fly.
Leonardo’s vocational title on any given day could have been military contractor, inventor, painter, or musical performer. However, I have never heard him called a “failure.” His list of projects ran from useful to fantasy. He was very human—he loved people, work, play, food, and life. Leonardo traded in doubts and questions. He signed his work, “Leonardo Vinci discepilo della sperentia”—“Leonardo da Vinci, disciple of experience.” Leonardo asked “why?” and “why not?”, and then he sought answers and solutions, and he wrote down his observations.
The secret to innovation is really no secret. The beginning of innovation engages a mindset of questioning “Why?” and then systematically moving through a process of discovering “Why not?”
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