Archimedes took a bath – and, “eureka,” discovered the principle of buoyancy. An apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head – and the theory of gravity was born.
Popular culture is in love with the notion of scientific breakthroughs happening through strokes of brilliant insight.
But innovation is rarely the result of a series of epiphanies.
In his 2017 Harvard commencement speech, Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg even went as far as to call the idea of a single “a-ha” moment a “dangerous lie:” The “eureka myth” can prompt people who haven’t experienced a sudden breakthrough to give up.
Business journalist and author Amanda Lang would certainly agree. In her book, The Power of Why, she discusses how seven of the most common “innovation myths” sabotage people’s natural drive to explore.
Her main take-away: innovation is a painstaking process of trial and error. Most of the time, it is not a solitary pursuit but a team-effort. In large organizations, such as Apple or Whole Foods, some of the best ideas have come from front-line employees who knew what consumers most desired – and not from secluded, deep-thinking geniuses, as Hollywood would have it.
Also, innovative thinking can be learned and cultivated. Everybody can adopt the mindset of an innovator by continuing to ask questions. Furthermore, companies can foster a culture of innovation that encourages employees to think and experiment.
In fact, the ability to innovate rests within all of us. What child doesn’t constantly ask the questions “Why?” and “Why not?” when trying to make sense of the world? Innovation, then, depends on our ability to think like a child, to keep asking questions, and to not take “no” for an answer. It requires us to think outside the box and explore many different avenues, one cognitive brush stroke at a time.