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Innovation Is Messy: Navigating the Twists and Turns

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Innovation is messy. It’s about constructive conflict—not agreement. There are twists and turns—not straight lines. And it happens in gray areas—not black and white spaces. Innovation is not produced by alignment. Go to a meeting at any of the most innovative companies and you’ll see that it’s not a polite tea-and-crumpets conversation. Everyone isn’t following each other. Rather, people are pushing and shoving. But this conflict is a constructive kind of conflict—it’s a positive tension. What happens when pragmatic thinkers work with big-picture thinkers? What happens when the goal-oriented thinkers meet the patient thinkers? This is exactly how and where innovation happens: when people who think differently talk to each other.

Innovation doesn’t happen within one discipline. It happens in the white spaces between disciplines. You can call this bissociation or diffusion. The idea is simply this: sometimes parts of an organization come together that aren’t used to coming together. So, for example, if we’re trying to look through a freight container to make sure there’s nothing bad inside of it, we should incorporate the viewpoints of different fields. One perspective might be that of people who work with sonic waves. Another might come from those who work with ultraviolet light or the light spectrum. Once you put the two things together, you can build a composite that allows us to get a comprehensive account of what’s actually going on inside the freight container. This didn’t happen within a single field but between multiple fields.

Innovation doesn’t happen in straight lines. It happens in cycles. Imagine that you’re walking up a mountain, going in a circle. That’s how innovation works. It’s highly iterative. Many people mistakenly think that they already know everything in the beginning. In reality, you don’t know anything in the beginning. The object of going around in circles rather than in a simple straight line is that you’re going to learn things along the way. In innovation, there’s a lot of twisting, turning, and doubling-back. It’s about paying attention to what we know now and what we learn from experience and experiments.

The biggest thing to understand about innovation is this: it’s never fully realized. There is no “there.” If you’ve developed the miracle drug, there’s always another miracle drug to make. If you’ve developed the great restaurant, there’s always a second restaurant. There’s always somebody pushing back with an alternative so that you have to keep moving forward. We’ve never fully arrived—whenever we get where we think we wanted to get, there’s a new place to reach.

Benjamin Franklin immediately comes to mind here as someone who understood this very deeply. He was a penniless runaway who became a printer, then an entrepreneur, going on to create a library, a university, the original self-help group, all before becoming a scientist, diplomat, politician, and patriot. What if it at any time in Franklin’s life he thought he had arrived? He would’ve never become the incredible polymath and Renaissance man that we all want to be. In this way, it’s a gift that innovation is never fully realized, because this is what pulls us forward.

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