“Necessity is the mother of invention.” The first written use of that phrase in Latin is more than 500 years old, but it is just as true today. When there is a need, we are driven to find a creative solution that deviates from what we have always done. When a need becomes great enough in our workplaces, on our commutes, or in our homes, we buckle down and find a way to address that need. This is the spot we’re finding ourselves in more and more as it relates to our industry—the needs of our nations’ built infrastructure and natural environment are becoming too big to ignore, and we’re proud to have scientists and engineers on our team that are ready to innovate in order to meet them.
Because the creative process is a bit of an enigma, though, innovation can seem like a mystical conjuring rather than a rational outcome of logical thought. Maybe that is why people so frequently widen their eyes and ask what my firm or I have done that is “innovative”—it’s not dissimilar from people from a more distant time asking “How will you make it rain?” While we still aren’t able to make it rain, we are finding ways to better use our resources every day, and flexing this innovation muscle is useful for all of us to practice on a regular basis.
The business of thinking outside the box
I contend that the process of innovation requires five simple steps:
- Get in the right mindset. Creativity springs from a thought pattern that you control. Start by reminding yourself of all the innovative things you have done—managed time creatively to squeeze in all of the day’s priorities, set Siri up to control the lights in your home, figured out how the dog can get to the food by itself—anything. You solve problems with creativity every day. Make a list of the best examples you like and read it a couple of times a week.
- Define the necessity. If necessity is the driving force in creative invention, then focus on that need. Think about all the ways that need influences your situation, then think about how that situation might be improved if the need were satisfied. Have faith that the need can be met or exceeded. This gets you to “begin with the end in mind.”
- Seed your thinking. Brainstorming cold is like going for your morning run without stretching first. Ouch! You can Google similar problems to see what others have done to start, but this isn’t just about a linear solution. Try word games, draw pictures, act out the problem in a group. It is all about jump starting the full ability of your brain, which is very much a biological problem that requires more than just focus. Steve Jobs famously had his best meetings while taking everyone for a walk.
- Go ahead and be practical. What makes innovation exceptional is that it solves some problem in a really economical way. The old Vaudeville routine goes like this: A man walks into the doctor’s office, “Doc, it hurts when I move my elbow like this.” “Well,” says the doctor, “don’t move your elbow like that.” Sometimes the most innovative thing is the simplest. Ask yourself what the easiest thing to do to solve this problem is, even if it seems unsophisticated or silly.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. The popular quote is “Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow.” The version I like better is “Mistakes are good, as long as they are new ones.” The idea is that we learn from our mistakes, and that experience is necessary to finding the best outcome. It is okay to bracket your risk by making the leap of faith smaller—break the problem into smaller problems, or shorten the length of time it will take to either fail or achieve a solution. But no matter how you do it, get right with the concept that failure is success, as long as you are learning from it. Then, take the leap and get started!
Innovative thinking is built in to each of us. Watch a child explore around them and solve the immediate problems of their world and you will be convinced. The hurry and risk in life blunts that natural creativity, driving us to do what we have done so many times before. But, you are innovative and you can reconnect with that creativity if you just stop being irrational (anxious), and have faith. We are people of science and reason here at Woodard & Curran, but we also know that believing in a great solution is often the first step towards achieving it.