The Coming Innovation Wave

Most of humanity tries hard to predict their futures. The unknown is somewhat frightening. It is natural and reasonable to attempt to reduce risk.  After all, if things are going well, why rock the boat.

Creative Outliers do not necessarily feel that way. It is not that they pursue risk deliberately although some certainly do. It is more that they are curious and creative, and that this combination drives them to try things; often new things.                 

But what happens when situations are untenable? We have all heard the phrase necessity is the mother of invention. And who do you think is doing this invention? More often than not, those who do not fit nicely within the bell curve.

And where do you think innovation comes from? Fearful hand wringing frightened and not very secure people? Innovators come from the ranks of creative outliers. And if innovation can be defined as applied insight, they have more than an idea, they have a prototype or a product that can possibly be adopted. Being a creative outlier may provide for a very interesting life but not usually a fiscally stable one. Here is where innovators differ from creators, they do have some sort of business model in order for their insights to become adopted, they have to first be applied and manifested. 

When a significant number of individuals are extremely dissatisfied, there is a reasonable chance change will be occurring. This coming change is very hard to accurately predict in terms of what and when, but when more than the innovators and creative outliers feel compelled to act due to circumstances, there is a good chance something is going to happen.

This is why there seems to be the potential for an innovation wave. Rich and poor, educated and not, left and right, men and woman, majorities and minorities are ll questioning current circumstances. It seems like also everyone wants change, not all the same changes to be sure. But also not No change either.

This is why it is my opinion that an Innovation Wave is coming. And I offer a plausible explanation of why, how to think about it and what to do.

The combination of an economy crippling global pandemic, declining democracy, and climate change are all riding on a rising mountain caused by psychological and economic tectonic plates moving fairly rapidly toward each other and giving rise to a hybrid future. No society is not going to go back to only in-person interactions and gatherings due to the fact that we are social animals who need to encounter each other for multiple reasons, not the least of which is perpetuating the species. And no society is not going to voluntarily back away from virtual interactions for even more than the obvious iconic reasons. An even larger reason which will ultimately emerge is humanity has just had a taste of transcending geographic proximity. Previously regional concentrations of people produced agricultural society, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution and even the Manhattan Project for it had required people to be geographically proximal in order to collaborate. This is no longer true and it saves not only time and money but is also transcendental by moving us into the realm of ideational proximity at just the same time as there are many dissatisfied with the status quo.

What will happen, I can not predict but certainly something or many things will and we are accelerating toward change. This is not a bad thing as humans are better at adapting than most other things.

On the other hand, we are not very good at all managing innovation in part because it is largely involuntary and therefore there is a significant gap between two important outer populations – decision-makers and innovators. There are ways to better handle the naturally different priorities which can permit and improve collaboration which is more important than it usually is as the stakes are currently high.

We know change is called for but there is a large range of how smoothly to turbulently this can be manifest.

And by the way, I am not offering footnotes, references or citing “experts”. As in this situation “Experts Aren’t”  Yes there are many who claim to be such masters of innovation management, that they have converted it into a science. The last time I checked science required repeatability and measurability and there are no agreed-upon units of innovation without which quantification is not possible.  Innovation is far more qualitative than quantitative.   If you are an innovator you already know this for it resonates with your own personal experience. Innovation Practitioners are not cut from the same cloth as Innovation Scholars.

The real questions relate to, how can creative outliers manage themselves better to shrink the gap between themselves and decision-makers?   The tectonic plate which is about to cause an innovation wave is pushing us all to find out. Stay Tuned.

On Being A Creative Outlier

First, let’s begin with what does it mean to be an outlier, and before that, what is an outlier?  There are billions of individuals on this planet, and surely we are not all the same. Some are tall, and some are short. Some are rich, and some are poor. And some are creative, and some are less so.  And perhaps everyone is born creative, but society beats it out of most of us. We can not blame society and its institutions for this, as decision-makers have a primary responsibility to accommodate the majority. 

A brief, extremely lightweight statistical digression. 

We have all heard of the concept of a bell curve (or normal distribution of standard deviation).

This perfectly symmetrical statistical distribution represents the amount of variation in a set of values.

68% of humanity lives with one standard deviation of variation (also called one sigma).  95% within two and 99.7% live within three standard deviations.

Decision-makers are fairly happy if they can successfully serve 68% of humanity, and they are extremely happy if they can serve 95%. No one ever expects to satisfy the three standard deviation crowd of 99.7%.

Probably the majority of you are in the 5% beyond 2 standard deviations when it comes to curiosity and creativity, and this can get you in trouble because you are among the roughly 1 in 20 who are outliers who do not see the world from the same point of view as those firmly ensconced in the middle of the bell curve.

If you are three standard deviations away from the mean (or average), then you are roughly 3 out of a thousand people, and you have bigger problems because there is a pretty chance that many of the things and ideas that excite you may not even be visible or noticeable or understood by the mainstream.

This means every time you attempt to communicate what you are excited about, there is a reasonable chance you will be misunderstood. 

Welcome to the world of the creative outlier. These people may live more in possibilities than in probabilities which tends to get one in trouble with decision-makers whose responsibility may be to take care of the 68% majority in the center of the bell curve.

Assuming you still like being creative and would like to monetize this double-sided attribute sustainably, then it is time to become an innovator.  I define innovation as applied insight.  If a creative insight is never applied, then it is not an innovation. If you apply something that is not an insight, that too is not innovation. 

Being an innovator probably places you three standard deviations out of the mean, which means you have a couple of chances out of a thousand to be average, and with this comes both danger and opportunity, the two sides of crisis.  

Of course, almost every incredible success story has to do with getting on the opportunity side of a crisis. There is, however, risk involved, and this is something that decision-makers do not usually respond to favorably. This is why creativity is usually not a predictor of a smooth, simple, or routine life.

There are many ways to navigate the path of a creative outlier toward becoming an innovator, and some are decidedly more likely to yield better outcomes. This is a large part of the reason SVII was founded in Silicon Valley on June 16, 2005, where there were and still are an unusual number of three sigma people. And it is also why SVIII, the new international and virtual version of SVII, is in the process of coming into being now seventeen years later.   

3 Essentialism Questions

One of the more recent books on the topic was written by Greg McKeown and he raises three questions worth passing along as very useful especially to innovators. I am paraphrasing not quoting here but it should be pretty close.  Here are Greg’s three questions that are part of his process.

What do you have a passion for?  What do you have a talent for?   What will make a difference?

Innovators notice many things, are curious about many of them, and come up with large numbers of ideas all of which can make for a noisy existence cluttered by an excess of focal points, vantage points, and perspectives. This is why we helicopter around so much, as Malcolm an early SVII member puts it. Just because we can helicopter around, does not necessarily mean that we should, even though it is fun, it is not always productive, which is where the three questions mentioned above seem to be useful. Over time we may have the passion for a relatively large number of topics or fields but integrate over a long time constant to see what rises above the rest. 

I have been passionate about trying to understand why sound in general and music, in particular, have such a profound upon many people, including me. This led to decades of study and eventually professional work in the areas of acoustics, signal processing, psychophysics, music theory, composition, production, reproduction, and most recently orchestration. My life has been littered with science, engineering and music books, papers and instruments. I still do not have a single conclusive answer but do have many ideas about the topic and am still learning several degrees and careers later.

Now the second question do I have a talent for it? This is a little more complicated because according to who? But perhaps writing, performing and recording and releasing a number of musical pieces counts in some way even if they have not and may never change the world. And contributing technologically to digital pianos and computer sound systems may also qualify as I did earn a living doing these at Apple, Bose and other places. 

The third question having to do with making a difference or having some sort of impact is also somewhat subjective but having publicly performed over a thousand times and having influenced products used by millions implies some sort of traction.  Now here is the interesting part, fifty years after heading down this path of music and technology I am still reading, thinking and listening about both, still performing and still attempting to harness or invent technology to lower the overhead for musical creative expression.

In several decades one does not likely have a single career and I am no exception. Having worked in industry, government, and education, I am still passionate about the same topics, and still, wonder if I have enough talent or impact. I do not need to have answers or impact or fame or fortune form these activities – I still like them and still do them and they still function as priorities.  I had not thought to qualify these as organizing priorities, in a long time until beginning to listen to Greg McKeown’s book on Essentialism.

So thanks, Greg – you reminded me to ask important questions which help me to be clear about my priorities, reduce the noise, and focus my energy.

Essentialism Time

Just about everyone has more to do and more to think about then there is any hope of addressing.  Prioritization, essentialism, deep dive, focus and emphasis are just some of the many terms people use to refer to the need to filter much out of their life, in order to get what matters, and is important done. There continue to be many books written about intention, discipline and how to be in the world, and I have no desire to add to this literature.

What I do have a desire to bring up, is the time-varying nature of one’s ability to perform any of the above, as we are not primarily logical and the way we feel continues for most of us to dominate the way we think. In other words just because we think we know what to do and what our priorities are, does not mean we are able to perform upon demand.

Ah, I hear some of you saying that’s why god invented deadlines. To some extent, this is a terrific way to focus, but usually an external way.  The internal should really rule over the external as much as possible if we are to be masters of our own destiny.  There are however empirically certain times that are significantly better than others, to address one’s essential nature and focus on what matter most (which are also time-varying).  The way to determine these times is usually by trial and error, for humans are not primarily logical. 

Nevertheless, there are times that occasionally reveal themselves, which are excellent opportunities, to take on things we have been avoiding, and which we know need to be done. Sometimes, it has simply not yet been possible to psychologically address something, like cleaning up inherited messes from deceased family members, until enough time has passed to decrease one’s sensitivity to the tasks. 

Sometimes we can become engaged in essential activities, that are so close to our hearts as to free up enough energy to address other avoided tasks. I call this Essentialism Time. I am not going to define essentialism as there is already plenty to read on the web, and it is adequately self-explanatory.

The point I am raising here, is when one is on their essential path, the stunning amount of previously locked up energy, which can be released can not only benefit the primary essential task, but also literally “float your boat” and make it easier to do anything and everything, in your life including avoided tasks you were not yet ready to address. In this exciting state, vitality is increased, releasing energy which can be applied to all manner of things. Unfortunately, this can dissipate it, and lead you back to where you started overwhelmed.

On the other hand, if you can remain conscious of this liberated essentialism energy, by being aware that you are operating in essentialism time, there can be great gains in productivity, regarding every aspect of your life. 

At the moment this seems true, teaching a great lesson.  One had best be on their essential path, for otherwise, everything in life is harder than it needs to be.