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Why We Need To Create Before We Can Innovate

Best practices can always be bested. Before we come up with a solution, we all need to get our hands dirty.

Why We Need To Create Before We Can Innovate
[Screen stills via TEDTalentSearch]

As a young Masai boy living on the southern border of the Nairobi National Park, Richard Turere’s job was to guard his father’s cows from nightly lion attacks. It was boring, tiresome work, and he wasn’t always successful at it: one night, lions killed his family’s only bull.

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The Masai community had a systematic way of dealing with the lion problem–what we might call their best practices. Village boys stayed awake at night to watch the cows, and when too many cows were lost, a group of Masai warriors hunted the lions and killed them.

But Turere wasn’t satisfied with the status quo. He didn’t relish the killing of endangered lions–but he wanted to sleep at night. So he gathered his supplies–a car battery, a solar panel, and some bulbs from a broken flashlight–and he began to design, to innovate.

We all know that innovation is the key to business success in today’s cluttered marketplace. But traditional business thinking shrinks from innovation, because it has no way of de-risking bold ideas. “If no one has done this before,” the executive asks, “why should we take a chance? Why not just wait until someone else tries it, then jump on board if it works?” Needless to say, this isn’t a recipe for innovation, but for stagnation.

It’s also a recipe for a lot of dead cows.

We’re All Designers

Turere had only himself to convince when it came to the value of creativity and invention. Entire companies, obviously, can be harder to inspire. But the truth of the matter is this: if you want to innovate, you have to design. You must engage in design thinking. And no, it’s not enough to hire a few creative specialists, hoping they’ll work their magic from the ergonomic comfort of their standing desks. You need all hands on deck.

Traditional business thinking has only two steps: knowing and doing. You “know” something, either from past experience or business theory, and then you do something as a direct result of that knowledge. (Lions kill cows, and thus we know that we must kill lions.) This feels safe and familiar–it feels like a best practice. But if you limit yourself to what you already know, you’ll never get a new idea.

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Design thinking is a creative, adventurous, even radical approach to solving problems. It inserts a crucial middle step between knowing and doing called making. Making is the process of imagining and prototyping solutions that weren’t on the table before, and it confers a powerful advantage on those who master it.

Design thinking helped Dr. Carl Hodges, founder of the Seawater Foundation, to use the rise in sea level caused by global warming to turn coastal deserts into farmland. Design thinking is behind the Ocean Cleanup Array, the brainchild of Boyan Slat, who, at 19, dreamed up a way to remove up to 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the world’s oceans.

And design thinking led Turere to create and test a variety of potential solutions to his lion problem. Fire? No, doesn’t work. A scarecrow? Only works once or twice. But blinking lights that mimic the motion of a guard walking the perimeter of the cowshed with a flashlight (and, presumably, a weapon)? Genius.


Turere’s system of mounted, flashing solar-powered lights have kept the lions at bay for two years now, and he’s installed his invention at numerous other farms in his community. He’s living proof that design isn’t the exclusive territory of professionally trained designers.

To be a designer is simply to be someone who doesn’t take yes for an answer–a person who searches for better and better solutions to what could be, as opposed to being satisfied with what is. As Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, puts it, “A designer is anyone who works to change an existing situation into a preferred one.”

Marty Neumeier is the author of The 46 Rules of Genius, Metaskills, The Brand Gap, and Zag. He serves as director of transformation for Liquid Agency.

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