How broad knowledge leads to innovation

Many people in creative professions have the curious habit of exploring a multitude of unrelated fields and topics. Myself certainly included. While this time-consuming activity might seem like a counter-productive practice, the opposite is true. It is exactly this strange custom that enables creative people to come up with new and original ideas.

The importance of broad knowledge

Creativity is combining existing elements to create something new. You bring two (or more) things together which have not yet been brought together in this context and, as a result, a brand new idea emerges. You can combine anything from techniques and materials to processes and ideas.

If it’s innovation you’re after, you have to be able to make these connections.

Any creative can tell you it pays to be curious. Expose yourself to many different ideas and your creativity will skyrocket.

Make your head a place where different ideas can bump into each other. A place where ideas can build upon each other. Create what Frans Johansson, in his book The Medici Effect, calls “the intersection”, a place where different fields meet.

While too much knowledge on one single subject can stifle your creativity (in this area), lots of unrelated knowledge on many different subjects is a breeding ground for innovation.

If you’re in charge of innovation at your company, or if you want to increase the number of original ideas that you have… explore some new subjects. Books and documentaries are a goldmine, but blogs on various topics are great sources of new knowledge as well. And when filling your bookshelf, don’t limit yourself to study books. There is no reason to exclude fiction, biographies and novels. These sources too can give you valuable insights.

Increase the chances of stumbling onto brilliant new combinations. Expand your horizons. Make it a habit to regularly pick up a book or magazine on a subject that normally doesn’t appeal to you. And try out new activities whenever you got the chance. Not only will you be the life of the party, you might surprise your market with the next great invention.

Don’t underestimate your intuition

Being curious is important, but so is listening to your ‘gut feeling’.

When it comes to innovation, intuition plays an important role as well. It may sound fuzzy, but it’s actually pretty simple: in his book ‘Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell describes how our brain uses two types of strategies to make sense of a situation:

One is a conscious strategy. You think of what you’ve learned and come up with an answer. Logically.
But the second one is the unconscious strategy. Intuition. Here, your brain sends signals via indirect channels (like your sweat glands) telling you whether or not something ‘feels right’.

Gladwell describes this second process as a giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of data. This enables us to make very quick judgments based on very little information.

Therefore, don’t discard the ideas you can’t immediately rationalise with obvious arguments. It’s possible your brain has made some connection you aren’t aware of yet.

Those ‘funny feelings’ and ‘eureka moments’ don’t come out of nowhere… ‘It feels right’ actually means: ‘based on all the information in my subconscious, this should be the best option.’

Some of the best ideas are the result of this subconscious grinding of information. A process also known as ‘Incubation’. For a brief, but very clear explanation of this phenomenon read ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’, by James Webb Young.

But all the information in the world, whether you combine it consciously or subconsciously, won’t lead to innovation if you miss the last crucial step…

“If information was the answer then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” – Derek Sivers

Knowledge is not everything. Information is not enough. Nor are ideas. To turn a creative idea into an innovation, you need to implement it.

The key is implementation

Innovation is the implementation of a new idea. It doesn’t even matter if it really works the way you expect it to. The moment you put an idea into action, you’re innovating.

Your idea might disappoint in practice. That’s okay. It means you’ve learned something. Apparently, (some of) your assumptions didn’t hold up. You now have the opportunity to improve your idea. Sharpen it, based on the real-world feedback, to make it even better. Innovation is (usually) not as simple as generating an idea and carrying it out. It is much more like a constant feedback loop. You generate a new idea, you try it, you figure out what elements need improving, you go back to the drawing board and you try it again. And again. And again. At some point your innovation might be ‘finished’, but this will rarely be after your first attempt in the ‘real world’.

Let’s innovate

You now know what to do:

1. Stock up on as much ‘random’ information as your head (or bookshelves) can store.

2. Make new combinations. Whether consciously or subconsciously. And don’t be afraid of ‘weird’ combinations. Those tend to be the gems.

3. Implement your new ideas. Don’t wait till your plan is perfect. It never will be. Go out in the real world and put your idea to the test.


Want to know more about innovation?

Don’t hesitate to contact us for an incompany workshop or even an entire Innovation Course. Are you already out there innovating vigorously, but did you somehow got stuck? Let us know if we can help you with some ‘innovation coaching’.

Looking forward to hearing from you!


Flickr Creative Commons Image via Mark Colliton.

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