Breakthrough Innovations Often Come From The Most Unlikely Places

In Simon Sinek’s popular TED Talk, which remains one of the most viewed ever, he explains how great leaders, like Steve Jobs, the Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. succeed where many others failed because they put purpose first. “Start with why,” he says and then move on to the “what” and the “how.”

That’s generally good advice. The best way to build a great organization is to start with a clear mission rather than a plan or a product. Still, it overlooks another very important truth. Success eventually breeds failure and, when that happens, you must venture into the unknown where your purpose becomes unclear.

That’s a very different type of problem and we need to approach it differently. We have to explore, probe new spaces and make new connections. That’s the only way you will come across the unexpected, random pieces of insight that can take you in a new direction. Starting with the “why” is one path to success, but sometimes it’s better to start with the “why not?”

A Personal Journey

In 1997, when I was still in my twenties, I took a job in Warsaw, Poland. I found soon after my arrival that I was poorly prepared. Working for a large corporation in the US, I had been trained to work within a system, to play a specific part in a greater whole. When a problem came up that was outside my purview, I went to someone down the hall who played another part. Yet in post-Communist Poland, there was no system and no one down the hall.

So I had to learn a new outlook and a new set of skills. Now when a problem came up, I had to figure it out myself. That meant stretching myself and going to places — both geographically and cognitively — that I’d never imagined going. Although I had planned on a 6-month stint, I ended up spending fifteen years in Eastern Europe, including Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey.

I consider myself lucky to have had that experience. When you explore the unknown, you end up finding valuable things that you didn’t even know to look for. Howard Schultz’s travel in Italy gave him the idea that made Starbucks a global juggernaut. Clarence Birdseye’s explorations with the Inuit gave him the idea of selling frozen food.

As Abraham Flexner explained in his famous essay, The Usefulness of Useless Things, the greatest human achievements often don’t begin with a purpose, but as a quest for understanding.

Exploring “Room At The Bottom”

When Richard Feynman stepped up to the podium to address the American Physical Society in 1959, he had already gained a reputation as both an accomplished scientist and an iconoclast. He would win the Nobel Prize just six years later, in 1965, and was almost as famous for his inveterate pranks and his heavy Brooklyn accent as he was for his brilliance.

His talk, modestly titled There’s Plenty of Room At The Bottom, began with a seemingly innocent question: How could you shrink the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica to fit on the head of a pin? It seemed like a joke — and with Feynman you could never be sure — but he went on with a straight face.

Over the next hour, he continued to explore the idea, explaining how, by reversing the lens of an electron microscope, you could shrink something down that much. He then went on wonder if you could shrink an encyclopedia, why not machines or surgical robots or anything else? Yes, there would be some problems, but he outlined how those could be worked around.

At the end of his talk, he presented two challenges — to shrink a book page and a motor down to microscopic size– and offered a prize of $1000 for each one. The first challenge was achieved in less than a year and the second in 1985. With his playful little talk, Feynman had managed to invent the field of nanotechnology.

Darwin’s Other Exploration

One of the most famous explorations in the history of discovery is Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle, which sailed in 1831 when he was just 22 years old. Its journey lasted for five years, during which Darwin sent back numerous dispatches about the amazing diversity of life he found in far flung places such as Africa, South America, Australia and, most notably, the Galapagos Islands.

Evolution was something Darwin had been thinking about for a while and he had been heavily influenced by Charles Lyell’s theory of geological uniformitarianism, which argues that the world had not been made all at once, but was constantly changing shape. What he saw on the voyage reinforced those beliefs, but he had no working theory to explain them.

That all changed in 1838, three years after he had returned to England, when he happened by chance to read an economics essay by Thomas Malthus on population growth. It was about as far away from Darwin’s usual interests as you can imagine, but nevertheless turned out to be the final piece of the puzzle. As he would later write:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long and continued observation of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavorable ones to be destroyed.  The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory from which to work.

If you think about it, the connection is quite remarkable. After years of working on the problem of evolution, the final insight came from an essay in an unrelated field that was written 40 years earlier, in 1998, and the result was one of the most important scientific theories in history.

Anatomy Of A Breakthrough

There is a fundamental difference between innovation and operations. Starting with the “why” will give you a purpose and help you achieve it, but asking “why not?” will take you to places you never imagined going and that is where the really exciting stuff happens. It is often those seemingly random wanderings that shed new light on our everyday work.

In the research that led to my book Mapping Innovation, I consistently noticed the same pattern. Smart, hardworking people who had significant expertise in their field were all of a sudden taken in a new direction that led to a breakthrough. In many cases, this was the product of an exploration that didn’t seem to have any immediate relevance to the problem at hand.

Darwin never dreamed that Malthus’s essay would help him crack the evolution puzzle. If he had, it wouldn’t have taken him 40 years to get around to reading it. Feynman was a habitual explorer. Besides physics and nanotechnology, he was a pioneer in quantum and parallel computing, did serious work in virology and was an enthusiastic painter and bongo player.

It would seem silly to ask why they did these things. There really isn’t any tangible reason to shrink an encyclopedia or to read things with little tangible professional relevance. Yet it is through traveling down unlikely paths that we end up in unexpected places. That’s how we have fun, which can lead to passion and, eventually a new “why.”

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