Knowledge & Innovation

Connecting the DotsA lot of people are talking about innovation.  But what really is innovation?  Some questions will pop up:

  • How can we innovate?
  • How innovation is related with knowledge?
  • Can we have innovation without enough knowledge?

There could be many different intrepretations about knowledge and innovation.  The author tries to look at it from a practical perspective.

Back in 2009 when I joined a startup company doing software development and we tried to do something different, and something not common in the market.  We built intelligent systems which are brand new and there were no other systems available in the market that we can follow.  But that also meant that we had to build everything from the ground.  Software development is a labor intensive job, and labor cost was high in Hong Kong.  One way to survive is to establish our building blocks, that means we gradually build up modules that we can re-use in the future so that we can save more time and resources in the next or future projects.  Systems can be built in a way that the back end system and the front end user interface (UI) can be separated.  The idea is to have the front end interface become a template, which can be changed or modified flexibly and easily.  The next step is to have separate teams to work on the back end and front end, and we meet some problems.  The design of the UI by different programmers eventually came up about the same.  After changing with different people, the results are more or less the same.  The question came to us - how can we innovate?  How can we come up with different UI designs?

One thing I found is that, all the programmers are trained in the same manner, through the same process, and they all work on the same tools.  How can they come up with something fundamentally different?  It is extremely difficult.  As a result, it actually came to my mind to outsource the UI design to a third party, who don't even need to be in the IT programming industry.

Traditionally the way we learned and studied in schools and universities, we all went through the same teaching processes, work on similar assignments and tests, under the same educational system, which drives towards standards because we believe standards brings a guaranteed quality.  However, how can people think with substantial difference while they think along the same direction?  The author has a few points to share:

  • When we think or talk, it is very common and very easily to be framed once we enter the thinking process.  Once we enter this process, we are being framed,  it is difficult to change our line of thinking, and get out of our original mindset again.  As a result, even if we think it over again, most likely we return to the same conclusions.  Therefore it is actually very difficult to "think out of the box".
  • From our experience of growth, we gradually build up our cause & effect blocks, which help us to think and response fast.  As a result, as time goes by, we tend to build up our fast and solid response which very often bypass our own thinking process.  We call it "experience", but these experience also becomes our inertia of thoughts at the same time.
  • Our experience and protection mechanism train ourselves to become judgmental.  Judgment causes us to bypass thinking and make conclusions, and these conclusions make us believe in it.  It is actually very dangerous.  This seems to be more common when people grow older, probably because their experience actually helps them to make judgments.

So what can we do?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Diversification - different people think differently.  Leverage the advantages and diversifications from different people to inspire ourselves.  This can include people of different nature, personality, professions, or can even be competitors, etc.
  • Put ourselves in the first person's position.  It is not as easy as people might think.  Put yourself into the environment, at same level, same perspective, and be part of the target environment.  Feeling might be totally different.
  • Change of our behaviour - do something that we don't normally do, and do it on purpose, and experience it.  Experience a different self.  Just go crazy and it might not hurt as badly as you originally think.
  • Use tools to help ourselves to become different, such as change of positions, change of location, change the environment, re-layout the cause/effect mindmap, etc.  Some practices like NLP and TRIZ are included in this category.
  • Hold our judgments - it is actually very difficult not to have a judgment.  However, we can control it, or we can delay it.  We can delay our judgment and we shall have more time and more room to understand more widely and in-depth.  We can also hold up our judgment and follow the others.  After all, it is a matter of confidence and calculated loss.
  • Observations - develop the sensitivity towards different things, different environment, and different people.  Observations give us a lot of reflections and clues about ourselves.  However, this is also a very difficult skill to develop too.
  • Trial & Error - sometimes trial and error is not a bad strategy especially when it the calculated loss is not high and affordable.  In fact, failures are also good learning too.

In KM, we talk about UNLEARN and RELEARN.  It is not just to wash away our knowledge which is actually impossible.  What it really means is to give up our original mindset which might already be out-dated, and replace with a more suitable and inspiring mindset.  This is easy to talk than do, because most of the time people tend to think that they're right.

While we grow, we develop a lot of knowledge and skills, but at the same time we build up a lot of blind spots too.  Blind spots are like driving, there are areas which we cannot see ourselves, and we need force ourselves to see what we normally don't for the purpose of security.  As a true leader, it is probably important for us to learn how to live with people with different thinking, because they help you to see your own blind spots.

I like what Steve Jobs said below, and these are also my my understanding:

  • Stay hungry - continue to learn with an empty mind
  • Stay foolish - continue to re-think from zero and give up our original mindset and judgment, which is also a re-discovery process

by KF Cheng