Secret Weapon for Innovation: What Google, Apple, Tesla have in common
Each started from a position of naïveté, with inexperienced founders who didn’t know their industries inside and out. They didn’t know what was possible, but they also didn’t know what wasn’t possible. And it was precisely this lack of knowledge that liberated them, allowing them to think more openly and creatively.
For example, at 72U, a 12-week creative residency within 72andSunny, we often take on projects we’ve had no experience with so we can grow and stay creative when solving problems. We recently worked with River LA to generate awareness for its mission: turning the concrete-covered flood control channel into a 51-mile linear space focused on community, green space, and water reclamation. With zero product design experience, we took inspiration from the river’s urban design and natural landscapes to develop and manufacture a wristband made of concrete from the Sixth Street Bridge (copyright 72U).
That wasn’t by accident. Experts make assumptions based on years of experience, automatically thinking, “Oh, I’ve seen this before; I know how to solve this.” When you’re naïve, you turn the “thing” all around to see it from different angles, go into exploration mode, and ask, “What is this?”
By leveraging your collective naïveté, otherwise known as a “beginner mindset,” you can push beyond the limits set by the status quo.
1. Don’t think — just do. I know; this sounds…naïve. Acting with a certain spirit of spontaneity and “thinking with your hands,” however, lets your vision override doubt.
In 2009, I wanted to develop a piece of software to visualize GPS data as art. I talked to a friend who was something of an expert in the field; he told me, in no uncertain terms, that it would be impossible, given my time frame and lack of resources.
It would have been easy to listen to that intimidating feedback and give up, but I was too inspired to quit. I plugged away until I found the right partner with whom to invent a solution. My passion convinced a company to fund the initiative, which debuted at Burning Man in 2010; several projects tracking individuals’ movements resulted in artwork that told stories that had never been visualized before. When a nagging voice insists that something be done, listen to it — not the naysayers.
2. Dabble in different fields and situations to connect dots an expert wouldn’t see. Experts tend to narrow their perspectives as they have more experiences in their field, making default assumptions and connections based on the past. This can lead them to adopt distorted, even misleading, ideas and erroneously apply them to unrelated situations.
Diversity is critical to avoiding this “knowledge-fueled” loop. Chances are high that you have either worked in different industries or know people who have. Embrace this! Exposure to different points of view breeds creativity. This is essential to everything our company does, which is why we host events that bring outside experts into our orbit. One of my favorites is Nerdy@72, a series we host to bring the company and the maker community together to celebrate experimentation and share cutting-edge art and technology projects.
Even if you lack the “hard” skills (teachable talents) required for a project, the “soft” (interpersonal) skills you’ve picked up in other situations can add unique value. When our diverse team partnered with the River LA folks, everybody brought their adjacent experiences to the table.
The set designer, for example, was instrumental in creating 3D renderings of the concrete bracelet and mock-ups of the event space. The mechanical engineer was crucial when it came to testing materials and iterating the bracelet and the interactive sculpture. Even the sketch comedy writer, who didn’t write any comedic material for the project, capitalized on many other skills he’d collected, like knot-tying (as a former sailor), a deep knowledge of Los Angeles history, and the ability to make everyone laugh, which played a big role in the team’s success.
3. Partner with experts so you can take on more risk. While naïveté is both useful and endearing, know your limits. Pushing past the point when your (inexperienced) alarm bells are ringing not only endangers your current project, but it can also threaten future opportunities. You may need to bring in outside experts at key moments in your project to avoid critical mistakes.
When you’re thrown off the deep end into something unfamiliar, identify which of your own skill sets come into play, and then get resourceful. For River LA, for example, we challenged our team to work with Arduino’s microprocessor, which can make objects reactive to motion or other stimuli, to create an interactive sculpture for an event. Being completely new to the concept, we had loads of ideas but didn’t know which ones might work.
We brought in light and sound installation experts, who pushed us into realms we never thought possible by incorporating a water element into the sculpture. The best way to learn is through doing, but at pivotal moments, it helps to have someone determine where you should best focus your naïve eagerness.
Liberate yourself from the pressure of having every answer the first time around. Follow the lead of the founders of some hugely successful companies — from Burt’s Bees to Ben & Jerry’s — by getting in touch with your inner beginner to innovate through naïveté.
image credits: 72u.org; likesuccess.com
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Maria Scileppi is the director of 72U, 72andSunny’s 12-week creative residency focused on personal and professional growth through collaboration and experimentation. 72U is comprised of 6-7 multidisciplinary individuals who experiment at the intersection of art, culture, and technology. The program is an iterative process, and each session is redesigned based on the team’s unique interests, skill sets, and current cultural landscape.