How Innovation Is More Poetry Than Science

Practical lessons from 35 years of writing poetry to help individuals and teams deliver more innovative products, processes, and services.

In a recent conversation with Phil McKinney, former HP Chief Innovation Officer and author of Beyond the Obvious: Killer Questions That Spark Game-Changing Innovation, we discussed innovation and theory. McKinney said that much of the literature about innovation comes from theorists, not practitioners. I responded that some of us assert practical innovation insights informed by very different experiences. Rather than learning about innovation through an Executive Innovation MBA program, or receiving an MBA in Innovation Management, I sat in hours of workshop classes learning to write poetry. The experience of reading, writing, reviewing and publishing poetry has informed all of the innovations that I have had the pleasure helping co-create, from the Surface Mount Assembly Reasoning Tool (SMART) at Western Digital to the Center for Information Work at Microsoft.American state and national legislators and leaders relentlessly harp on the need for STEM (an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math that suffers as a marketing tool due to its meaningless abstraction), but this mindset does not recognize the need for well-rounded, culturally connected, researchers and readers who extend themselves beyond simple categories of knowledge in order to create innovation. Poetry does not find valor under the auspices of STEM. Our future is as much threatened by the lack of imaginative connection making as it is from a dearth of engineers or mathematicians.Here are practical lessons from 35 years of writing poetry that can help individuals and teams deliver more innovative products, processes and services.Details MatterPoetry is not about words. Poetry is about the right words. Innovation isn’t about ideas. Innovation is about the right ideas. Innovators need to carefully select the features, functions, or experiences that comprise a new product, process or service. As poets need a large vocabulary to precisely convey their meaning, innovators need a deep vocabulary of science and practice, engineering and management, to construct their innovative wares.Design Is CriticalSelecting the right word or feature, however, isn’t enough. Words and features must also be arranged correctly. Modern poetry finds synergy with the visual arts. The way words sit on a page convey rhythm and breaks, breathing and emphasis, more so than the now often discarded punctuation. In innovation, design plays as much a role as function. How easy it is to get a device to do something often speaks more to innovation than the function itself. The iPod rose not because it played MP3 music, but because it did so through a unique design of hardware, software and services that changes people’s relationship to their music. Understand the MarketPoets are not above marketing. Though writing an epic poem remains technically and intellectually possible, even in this age of micro-markets and one-to-one marketing, the chances of finding a publisher for such a poem is exceedingly unlikely. Short poems do best, and those that observe the world with a certain twist do better than most rants or rages. And in the world of poetry slams, well-practiced articulations of rhyme-packed observations fuel an entire subculture. My market remains the journal, not the slam, so I practice writing rather than the internalization of phrases that transform into seemingly, but-not-so-much, spontaneous verbal improvisation. Innovators, as much as they want to create new products for new markets, need to understand markets that exist. The poetry slam arrived more from cultural and political expression deficits, and the competitive nature of many Americans, than from any need to return poetry to its spoken language roots.Structure InformsMany outside of poetry imagine poets as free-form thinkers, sprinkling words along a page until they run out of inspiration. Poets, however, are more architects and tinkerers than verbal Jackson Pollocks. For most of history, poets were expected to work within the very structured constraints of the sonnet, the sestina, the villanelle or haiku (to name a few), each an innovation in itself with elaborate rhyme schemes and rhythmic rules.Truth be told, most poets, even the most sprawling and unstructured, have at one time or another tackled a sonnet at minimum, and if they were associated with a creative writing program, probably other forms of structured verse as well.This familiarity and experience with structure informs divergence. A poet who understands the history of poetry, has direct experience with the craftsmanship required to create structured verse is better equipped to introduce innovations in language than those with fewer tools. The same is true of innovation. Ideas are cheap. Innovations require skills and knowledge of structure and first principles in order to produce consumable value. People who want to innovate should be students of the domains being called upon to facilitate the birth of their creations.Cut RuthlesslyI have written very long poems. Many of my long poems have become short poems, and it isn’t only because today’s market mostly calls for shorter poems. My poems have become shorter over the years because I have relentlessly honed them. Poets often overwrite as much as people around Christmas over-decorate. If a box of tinsel is good, then two are better. The more ornaments, the more festive. But the essence of art, and the essence I believe of innovative design, comes through best with purposeful sparseness. A clever turn of phrase can be lost among many not so clever turns of phrase, the same as an elegant feature can be lost among many not so elegant features. That is one of the reasons that Apple is considered innovative and Microsoft less so when it comes to its operating systems and productivity applications. Apple usually strives for sparseness, choosing crispness over comfort. When they get into trouble, as they have done to some degree with OS X Lion, they have introduced too many non-sequiturs that users neither need nor desire. Microsoft has built its software to be all things to all people. Even as Redmond relentlessly pares down the interface to create Metro, they retain the entire current Windows experience behind a Metro tile, completely breaking simplicity of design for the sake of compatibility. Apple, on the other hand, abandoned its older operating system, for both end users and developers to adapt to a new platform. Innovators need to cut ruthlessly so that innovations can be easily discovered.Seek Collaborative Criticism ReligiouslyMy first experience in a poetry workshop came when I visited UC Santa Cruz as a high school junior, and was asked not only to sit in, but to participate. At the time, I didn’t know that professor J.B. Hall would become my mentor, but he encouraged me to say what I thought of the poem that a student had just read. Being a brash 16-year old I quickly went for the mixed metaphors and words that seemed out of place. For a couple of years, that student and I continued to spar as peers after I entered Santa Cruz’s creative writing program.  I have always found that writing, even poetry writing, held too closely to the shadows is not as good as poetry exposed to the light of day. Several of my published poems have been modified by careful dialogue between myself and journal editors who sensed a word out of place, or an unnecessary clause. T.S. Eliot’s now iconic The Wasteland would not be the poem we know today without Ezra Pounds' insightful edits. Unlike poetry, innovation doesn’t have a private, hidden, personal journal version that can exist without criticism, a version written only for oneself. A tightly held innovation fails to adapt because it has become too precious, too rigid, too fragile to manipulate. Innovations should, like verse in a poetry workshop, be delivered into the world early so that worthy ideas may defend themselves and evolve, choking off superfluous ones now freed to find their own niche, or to die.Actively Explore the UnknownGood poetry makes unique observations about the world. Poetry focuses experience so people unfamiliar with an experience may, for a moment, share a gasp or sigh, lust or longing, repulsion or reverence. Similarly, innovation needs to create products, processes or services that offer unique value. Both activities require continuous learning and the ability to synthesize the unknown into something emotionally or physically consumable. If poets or innovators limit themselves to what they know, they will be capable only of reconfiguring the familiar, but not creating something new.Observe Your World With All Your SensesConjuring sensory-driven emotional responses through descriptive text might be a clinical definition of poetry. One can only achieve the translation of emotion into words if one practices emotions and equates them to a wide range of sensory experiences. Although the mind is a wonderful contraption of memory, it is an even better creator of distortion. Distortion can inform poetry and innovation by making new connections to seemingly disparate information. None of that is possible without a wide range of sensory input. Innovators need to touch, smell and feel, to listen and to watch, to incorporate all facets of what they observe, lest they find their bag a widget short of an insight just when needed. (Which is another reason to collaborate: innovators never know what they need, and they may be surprised by who brings it to the party.)Take Copious, Non-Linear NotesFor purists, observation comes not strictly from mental acuity, but from practice. Even while writing this article I had a moment of insight that was lost in a fleeting mind fart. Innovators and poets alike should take copious notes. They also need to reflect on those notes, to connect concepts through conduits, build infrastructure to support ideas. Notes hold mental sand and brick and steel, and without them, people leave destiny and wealth and recognition to the fragility of human consciousness. If you think something is important, write it down.What You End Up With May Not Be What You IntendedWhen I start writing a poem, I do so with some sense of where I intend to end up. Minutes or weeks or years later, the poem once so filled with the passion for a particular vector weaves itself along an entirely different path. I have seen great designs do the same. As knowledge is gained, experiences collected and feedback gathered, the original inspired thought morphs into something more robust, more resilient, more saleable. It can also morph into a Christmas tree with too many ornaments. These rules are not meant to be taken singularly or out of context, but to be applied simultaneously and continuously, lest what you end up with becomes not only something other than what was intended, but an anathema to aesthetics, or an unsalable kludge that reflects political promises it cannot fulfill.Endings Make all the DifferenceI was asked more than once in a poetry workshop if a person who writes poetry without publishing is a poet. In the context of innovation, my answer must clearly be no. Poets affect people’s perceptions of the world, and to do that, they must extend their world so that others can interact with it. It isn’t enough to end a poem well, the poem must find a home to be really meaningful. Innovators deliver a value of purpose. A product, process or service can only be called innovative when it emerges into the world, leaving a wake that changes the world, however subtly, forever.—You can read much of author Daniel Rasmus's published poetry at danielwrasmuspoetry.wordpress.com[Image: Flickr user Rhys Davenport]