Byron's Babbles

A Twist Of The Kaleidoscope

Posted in Creativity, Deep Innovation, Innovation, Kaleidoscope, Leadership by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on March 1, 2020

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a group of college interns using kaleidoscopes as the through line. I gave all the participants a small kaleidoscope and had them get into groups, look through their toys, and relate the view to their journeys as interns and becoming leaders. As the graphic I drew during the presentation shows, I titled our time together Kaleidoscopic Adventure. I encourage you to take a moment and check out the points made by the groups reflected on the graphic.

The interns quickly got the point that looking through a kaleidoscope is all about perspective. Perspective is the strongest power of the mind. Give the scope a twist one way and you see a set of images, and turn it the other way and you see another set of images. The different views represent our lives. We just need to find the angle we want to look through.

Our lives are complex, random, and structured; all at the same time. Much like looking through a kaleidoscope, we look from the simple to the complex. Sometimes we need to remember to look back through the kaleidoscope the opposite way, taking the complex back to a simple focus. This reflection brings us back to a simple neutral.

View through the kaleidoscope given to the interns

One thing is for sure, we need to enjoy the beauty of the journey. Just like the kaleidoscope, we all have different views and experiences. We also need to remember that the world we live in is ever changing and quickly changing just like the view as we twist the kaleidoscope. A kaleidoscope is such a great metaphor because it symbolizes ever-changing and endless possibilities. The kaleidoscope also reminds us of our endless possibilities powered only by the limits of our own creativity and innovative prowess.

Serendipity Mattered

This week while continuing to read Great Society: A New History by one of my favorite authors, Amity Shlaes, I found the shortest sentence in the book: “Serendipity mattered” (p. 188). Serendipity has always been an intriguing word to me that I have had trouble understanding because I here it being used in different ways. But when used in the context of Shlaes book, in a two word sentence it made perfect sense. The sentence “Serendipity mattered” really drove home the point she was trying to make and really made the lightbulbs come on for me.

In other words, there needs to be serendipity for innovation to occur. So what is serendipity? As I said earlier, I have trouble understanding it fully, but I know that when conditions are right for it, great things happen. Serendipity is said to happen by simple chance. An opportunity that comes about by a chance occurrence. Therefore, we must create the opportunities for these occurrences. This was the point that Shlaes was making in the book. The Fairchild Semiconductor company realized they needed innovation. They also realized that looseness of hierarchy drove innovation. Thus, “Serendipity mattered.” It is also why we need to beware of the current tides toward any of the Great Society’s socialistic tendencies. This will stifle the serendipity that is so needed.

I touched on serendipity in my blog post Alternative Truths back in 2017, but only to say that we need to be intentional to create space for serendipity to occur. Therefore, I needed to study a little more. Research led me to find that our use of the word serendipity comes from The Three Princes of Serendip. The musician and poet, Amir Khusrau wrote this Persian tale in 1302. The tale is about King Jafer and his three sons. He wants them to have the best education in the kingdom. The King believed that great book learning needed to be combined with a real world context. Wow, I preach that all the time! In fact, I wrote a book, The Hand In The Back Of The Room, about it!

Anyway, the king gave each of the boys a horse and told them to go discover. The boys relished and took advantage of this experience. They learned from being on a journey of taking in real world experiences. Then in 1754, Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in a letter. He described serendipity, by referring to the tale of the three princes, as making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of. He was excited about this word because there was no word to describe the discovery of something you are not looking for. It was really accidental sagacity.

Then comes the question, how do we create space for serendipity to happen. It probably won’t work to get everyone a horse, but I’m certainly up for it. Think about all the great inventions and innovations that have happened by accident. We need to remember in all this that creation precedes innovation. We need to provide ourselves and others varied routines and time for serendipitous moments to occur. It is why the story of the king sending the princes on a horseback adventure is so important. They’re heads were clear and they were just observing. Think about it; it’s why just taking a walk to clear your brain can bring creative thoughts and solutions. I do this a lot when facilitating teacher leader gatherings. I will tell them to split into groups and take a walk and discuss… They always come back refreshed and with great thoughts and ideas.

Leaders, including political leaders, need to recognize the important role serendipity plays in creativity, innovation, and even relationship building. Interestingly, in my research I found having lunch together as a strategy for encouraging serendipity. I blogged about having lunch together in Let’s Have Lunch Together, but not from the angle of serendipity.

We need to start looking for more serendipity to happen and create space for it. We might not be looking for something specific, but we need to be tuned into a channel of infinite possibilities. Think about it; this blog post was inspired by a two word sentence. It must have been serendipity!

Deep Innovation

As a self proclaimed energetic change agent, I had a great chance to check my values and views toward innovation while reading the awesome book, Innovation For The Fatigued: How To Build A Culture Of Deep Creativity by Alf Rehn. Rehn argued that we have become “shallow innovators” and need to start practicing “deep innovation.” One problem is we start using the same old rhetoric that makes us think we are “maverick innovators,” being “transformative,” or practicing “disruptive thinking.” We think these buzzwordy titles mean we are innovating, but really we are merely tinkering around the edges and making superficial changes. See why I gave this book ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️?

“Innovation has become a tired buzzword.” ~ Alf Rehn

According to Rehn, we need to focus on big solutions. In order to have deep innovation we need to start from scratch, or go in an entirely different direction. Real innovation, Rehn posited, looks beyond what we do and know now. One of my big takeaways was that we need to stop directing so much time and talent on incremental change. Many times we take the easy way out and make ourselves feel better, saying we are taking baby steps.

“Innovation history teaches us that human beings are terrible at identifying innovative ideas.” ~ Alf Rehn (p. 54)

Another part of the book that really jumped out at me was the section entitled “The Curse of Expertise” (p. 54). I have always worried about getting caught up listening to so called “experts.” In fact, I have blogged about my dislike of experts many times in Thanks For Not Being An Expert, Decision Making vs Problem Solving – and Why the Difference Matters, and Dig In & Stop Guessing. Rehn explained that many great ideas have been killed before they had a chance to prove themselves by these so called “experts.” Rehn said, “As curious as it sounds, the better we are at something and the more expertise we’ve amassed, the worse we often get” (p. 55). It is not that experts are bad, but we just should not rely on their word as the final word. Experts often forget that their expertise represents a very small part of the world’s total wealth of knowledge. We have a tendency to overestimate what experts know and want to use their opinions carte blanche. I see this happen a lot in policy decisions.

Finally, Rehn advised us to cultivate a culture of innovation. We need a certain amount of trust and an environment where we are able to voice our ideas or opinions without fear of censure or dismissal. This is what Amy Edmondson coined as “Psychological Safety.” If we lack an innovative culture we will only practice “shallow innovation” instead of “deep innovation.” This will then eat away at our organization’s purpose, according to Rehn. The loss of purpose will ruin an organization and affect employees at every pay grade of an organization.

So, let’s create a culture of innovation so we can practice “deep innovation” and change the world!