A Frenchman walks into a bar with a duck on his head, and the bartender asks, "Hey, where’d you get that?" So the duck says "I got it in Paris, they’ve got millions of ’em there."
Jokes like this one are funny because the punch line just doesn’t fit with the "context" of the setup. It violates our expectations, and this has the power to give us a chuckle.
Human beings are constantly observing the environment in order to make mental predictions for what will happen next, given the context of their observations. I’ve already written about how important context is when it comes to customer relationships. The deeper the context of a relationship—that is, the more detailed or informative your previous interactions with a customer have been—the more loyal that customer is likely to be in the future, because (among other things) the customer just doesn’t want to have to re-teach one of your competitors what they’ve already spent time and effort teaching you.
But context is also a key to innovation. Creativity drives innovation, and creativity is context-dependent. Only in this case, rather than using context to make predictions about our environment, creative ideas come when we purposely violate context. Context violations produce things you don’t expect, from funny punch lines to innovative ideas.
Your most creative insights are almost always the result of taking an idea that works in one domain and applying it to another. Every "new" idea you have, personally, is based on some combination of previous concepts in your own mind, even if you combined these concepts subconsciously. In a sense, as Matt Ridley has observed, innovation occurs when ideas get together and "have sex" with each other. In evolutionary terms, it’s called "exaptation." Bird feathers, for instance, are thought to have evolved during the Cretaceous period to help land-based reptiles protect themselves from the cold, but when one species of reptile later began experimenting with gliding, feathers were exapted as excellent tools for controlling air flow.
Innovation thrives on context violations and exaptation. The anti-lock braking system in your car is a result of research and development originally done in the field of aviation, for example. Icy airplane runways can’t be sprayed with salt and gravel to assist in slowing a speeding plane, so anti-lock brakes were first invented in this domain. Computer punch cards were exapted from the punch cards originally conceived to drive weaving patterns on mechanized looms. Viagra was originally developed as a drug to reduce hypertension.
You become more creative when you violate the context of your own expectations. So if you want to generate more innovative ideas, then you should purposely expose your mind to radically different facts and unusual, often conflicting concepts. Creative ideas are high in "information entropy," because they are not predictable. They don’t conform to the context of your current thinking. I listed several ways to generate high-entropy ideas in my post "Entropy Can Be Good for You" a few months ago. Be sure to check that list out, but here are some more suggestions for improving your own personal capacity for creativity and innovation:
•Move to a different apartment, or a different office location, or a different job. Change your environment, for no reason other than to make the change.
•Drive a different route to work or school, or to church, or to the club. Take a long cut, on purpose.
•Spend 30 minutes a day for two or three weeks with a language course from Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone in order to learn how to ask directions and order food in a new language.
•Brainstorm different ways to use a common tool (like a hammer, or a Phillips screwdriver).
•Go on a physical-fitness campaign. Work out until you break a sweat at least one time every day. Seriously. Every single day.
•Memorize something useless but ambitious, like pi to 100 digits, or the names of all the major chess openings, or all the U.S. vice presidents and the presidents they served.
•Meet one new person a day for a whole month. Talk to them, converse with them, get to know them. Talk with each of them frequently in subsequent days. You can easily do this online.
[Image: Flickr user lanceadkins]