The greatest breakthroughs in thinking and innovation happen out of our comfort zone. Innovation happens on the fringes between seemingly unrelated industries. It bubbles up when opposing ideas merge. Innovation grows in environments when opposites co-mingle. I call these innovative environments.
Surgical instruments were revolutionized by the culinary craft, telescopes in space took a leap forward through origami, and couches and potato chips came together to create the obesity epidemic…OK maybe that was a bad example.
So how do we get uncomfortable? How do we stay on that edge of learning? How do we engage others with us in productive conflict? How do we step into the places we have often avoided? How do we take individuals or groups of individuals with adversarial ideologies to productively work together to create something that could never come into existence without fully investing in the purpose and bringing your differences instead of hiding them?
How to create and environment of innovation.
We are programmed to avoid sensitive topics that could cause friction or heated discussions. You know what I am talking about. Don’t talk about these things at the dinner table. Those topics can’t be brought up at work. Watch out Uncle Ricky is about to go off again, there goes the peaceful family reunion. Professional business networks actually state it as a rule that you can’t talk about religious or political topics so that it doesn’t ruin the “authentic relationships” that they are trying to build. But perhaps we are missing an opportunity.
I live in the desert of the western US. Out here the most important and scarce resources is water. Which is weird because it is made up of Hydrogen and Oxygen which are some of the most prevalent elements in the world. So why would we ever lack for water?
Well here is the rub. Bringing concentrated amounts of those two things together and adding just a little spark causes an explosion. Enormous heat is released, pressure rises so suddenly that a loud bang follows and it leaves everyone on edge. But water and heat are products of this reaction. Two things, that when harnessed, sustain life. But, if combined unwisely, can kill.
Missed opportunities of Innovation
Why the science lesson? Because there are topics that we are not letting ourselves really talk about that if we don’t intentionally harness the pent up energy and innovation that exist there, they could really hurt us. If we just keep them apart, we never reach all of our potential. Which topics you ask?
Conservatives vs Liberals
Owners vs Workers
Democrats vs Republicans
Muslims vs Jews
Atheist vs Believers
Feminism vs Masculism
Capitalism vs Socialism
Black vs White
Majority vs Minority
…and many others.
Why do we avoid them? I think that is clear. Fear of massive, irreparable failure. What are we missing out on? Innovation, breakthroughs, growth, seeing each other, deep friendships, world peace.
OK…that may be a little over doing it but it may not be. Just imagine, what if the two sides came together. The Socialist and the Capitalist could create a society the protects property ownership while maintaining the dignity and supporting the dreams of the laborer. That sounds like a recipe for world peace. The Atheist and the Religious joining forces to support values that will serve everyone. The Conservatives and the Liberals using their unique views to jointly find a way to limit government intervention in where it is least effective and maximize it where it is most effective.
How is that fairy tale going to happen? How do we make crazy dreams like this come true?
1. See others as people with their own hopes and dreams that are just as valid as your own. Begin to see in them their genius. Know that they understand some things that you are clueless about.
2. Get curious to really understand them and learn from and with them. Really take the time to understand them, not just the label that you have for them. They are not the label. The label is used to control them and you.
3. Seek to find common ground…a unifying purpose. Hear their ideas through and seek to understand the values behind those ideas that resonate deeply within them. Identify those values and try to find out what happened in their life to establish those values. Honor those values and those experiences even if you don’t agree with them. Identify the ones that you mutually share.
4. Be open to challenge your own ideas. Know the boundaries and areas you are not willing to cross, and if they come up. Respectfully let them know that at this time you are not willing to change in that area and it is best to find common ground elsewhere.
5. Let yourself dream of a better world with them at your side where both of you are happy to be. Identify a path to get there. Make your plans and check for commitment level. Then execute on the plans together.
Here are some ways to do an innovation self assessment
If you didn’t change through this process, if your beliefs where not enhanced in some way, if your viewpoint or approach to solving the initial problem didn’t shift, or you admiration for them didn’t increase, you didn’t do it right.
If you convinced them to see the world like you do, if you won the argument for felt like you lost the debate, if you feel more entrenched in the fact that you were always right from the beginning and maybe some day they will come around, you missed the point.
If you feel like you would stand up for them, if you feel more grateful for their friendship, if you feel inspired by their motives even if you don’t agree with their means, if you are excited by the new solution that you created together, if you feel like the world is a bigger place, or if you leave feeling curious to understand more, you are ready to innovate. You did it right. You are on the journey to creating new solutions that the world has never seen and has always needed.
One final example of where opposites create something great
The greatest of all examples has to be when two very different beings, a man and a woman, come together and despite their differences choose to see each other and see a hope for something greater. Then through those differences create something incredible. They create a family. This isn’t done once, the decision is made each day, the commitment to work together is renewed every day. And within that commitment more good is done for society than through any other organization in the world. At least that is the potential if those differences are fully harnessed and used together for something greater instead of against each other in service of self or caught up in some pointless ideological warfare.
If you want to innovate in your business and in your life, start talking to different people and really seeing them. Create the environment for innovation by staying uncomfortable, by staying curious.