Sunday, January 29, 2012

Learn to recognize, and learn from, examples of Innovation

This will be a short, perhaps silly blog, but less is more, right?
For many years, when I periodically need a pick-me-up while coding, 1:10 times I end up with one of my favorites: Peanut M&Ms. In the past, I have always ripped open one end of the package and either poured the M&Ms out onto a (reasonably) clean sheet of paper on my desk, or poured them into my hand, a few at a time.

This past Thursday, I really needed a pick-me-up at work, so I made a trip to the candy machine and returned with a nice, yellow package of Peanut M&Ms. But for some reason, this time I opened the package at both short ends and along one of the longer sides. I then unfolded the wrapper and laid it on my desk (see photo below – some M&Ms are already missing, by the way…).


I thought, wow, this is pretty cool! This method of opening the package enabled me to see all of the M&Ms at once and also provided a clean resting place.
I suddenly realized that this was an example of Innovation! (albeit a minor example)
One thing about innovation is that, without realizing it, you do something (sub-optimally) the same way for a long time and never even stop to think if there is a different, perhaps better way to do this thing. Sometimes it takes an outsider (aka “fresh pair of eyes”) for new ideas to be voiced.
But at other times, you begin a task in a slightly different fashion (in this case, I didn’t open the package by tearing the paper as I usually do - I separated one end by pulling on opposite sides of the paper) - and this slight disruption in your traditional neural network “pattern” gives your brain a chance to consider alternate next steps.
In this case, it unexpectedly occurred to my brain: “Hey, why not open up three sides?” After doing this, I noticed that I could unfold the package and had a neat, clean little resting place for my M&Ms.
So why would I waste my time describing this? Well, the above incident immediately reminded me of a book I read over a decade ago: The Ideal Problem Solver (http://goo.gl/E8zqm). One of the big takeaways for me in reading this book is that often, a more optimal solution exists, but the reason we never discover this solution is because we never look for a solution because we never perceive the present situation as being a “problem” in the first place. Once a situation is recognized as a “problem,” solving the problem and improving our task/situation becomes relatively easy.
So, I encourage readers to consider training their minds to be more cognizant of/perceptive to repetitive tasks or situations. It could very well be that a task or less-than-ideal situation can be dramatically improved or even eliminated if one simply sees that situation as a “problem” to be solved. Once this perception is made, solving the problem is often very straightforward.
The End.