If you’re on a mission and don’t need context, scroll right to bottom and look for subhead Innovation Hack #1. But you will miss the story of the translucent worm and how it might save your life one day.
Lewis Carroll famously wrote, “If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
This is one of many paradoxes of innovation. While many innovations are developed through rigorous methodology (Watson and Crick’s DNA model, Page and Brin’s Google, and Englebart’s computer mouse) others follow a more serpentine path with some element of serendipity (Penicillin, Post It Notes, and Velcro.)
Here’s an example that is relatively unknown beyond scientific circles. It is the story of Martin Chalfie, a professor in the Biological Sciences Department at Columbia University, conducting research on the nervous system.
According to Gary Klein, author of Seeing What Other’s Don’t: The Remarkable Way We Gain Insights, “Twenty-five years ago, Chalfie walked into a casual lunchtime seminar in his department at Columbia to hear a lecture outside his field of research. An hour later, he walked out with what turned out to be a million-dollar idea for a natural flashlight that would let him look inside living organisms to watch their biological processes in action. Chalfie’s insight was akin to the invention of the microscope, enabling researchers to see what had previously been invisible. In 2008, he received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work."
What happened was a happy coincidence. Chalfie was studying the nervous system of worms. The type of worms he investigated just happened to have translucent skin, (an incidental feature that had played no part in his project).
“In the middle of the talk, the speaker described how jellyfish can produce visible light and are capable of bioluminescence. In 1962, a Japanese scientist discovered the protein that fluoresces to produce a green light in the jellyfish. When ultraviolet light is shined on the protein, it reacts by emitting green light.
That was Chalfie’s eureka moment. Suddenly, he understood that if he inserted the green fluorescent protein (GFP) into his transparent worms, he could shine ultraviolet light on it and see where the protein was spreading. He could track the cells into which he placed the GFP.
These biological flashlights are now a catalyst for innovations in molecular biology and a multimillion-dollar industry.
“Cancer researchers have inserted the GFP into viruses that grow inside prostate cancer cells, making the physiology of these cells visible. The GFP can be added to a molecule that binds to nerve cells so that surgeons can illuminate nerve fibers that they might otherwise have cut by mistake."
Louis Pasteur wrote, "Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés" -- "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.”
All of which brings us to the observation that innovation is both methodology and moments of happy accidents that allow the prepared mind to evolve the ideas into an innovation.
Innovation Hack #1
I cannot emphasize how critical this ability is in helping you develop an innovation mindset.
A simple definition: The talent for taking two unrelated concepts and finding connections between them. If I have a singular strength as an innovator/facilitator is my ability to associate disparate concepts.
Every morning, I give myself an associative challenge and give myself a minute or less for an answer. I pull the two items out of the ether without thinking of how they relate and look for connections.
For example, yesterday I asked, “What connects Beethoven and a rock.” I immediately went to a different definition of rock and said, “Chuck Berry’s song Roll Over Beethoven.
I could have easily gone to other areas – I am familiar with Beethoven’s life to know that he suffered and died from liver disease and that his liver was as hard as rock when he died.
Thinking like an innovator means honing many skills – one of which is developing associative thinking skills.
One easy way to accomplish this is to play the infamous Kevin Bacon game where movie buffs challenge each other to find the shortest path between an arbitrary actor and Kevin Bacon.
Here’s an example. Elvis Presley and Kevin Bacon. Elvis Presley and Cesare Danova appeared in Viva Las Vegas. Cesare Danova and Kevin Bacon appeared in National Lampoon's Animal House. That’s a remarkable two-degree connection.
Check out this short article by The Garage Group on how to amp up your associative thinking skills.