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Sunday, May 4, 2014

How Modular Thinking Can Dramatically Increase Our Actionable Innovation Rate


Look at all the problems we've got to solve. The old ways aren't working, right? We need new approaches, new ideas, new technologies, new solutions. Break the mold, think outside the box, go where no wo/man has gone before, land a spaceship on the moon.

Oh and while you're at it, get some coffee at Starbucks so we can have another brainstorming session in the afternoon.

If you look at innovation this way, it can seem exhausting. And it's easy to see how people would do that. Think about the world of fashion design, where the "best" designers are often conflated with those who show us something we've never seen.

The truth is that innovation isn't about coming up with new ideas all the time. And if you're thinking that it does, you should stop wasting your time on innovation. Because you will never get anything meaningful done.

So maybe you are thinking that I advocate spending more time on operations and less time on coming up with new ideas. Not necessarily. 

Of course innovation does take time to implement. But given sufficient resources with which to do both, it's not really a choice of one versus the other; they're different disciplines. Again, let's go back to fashion design as an example. The designer first sketches the idea. Other professionals support the initial sketch with fabric, model fittings, the runway show, and eventually the version you see in stores.

This is the important process through which the original idea becomes usable. Yes, you have to follow it. No, it does not take away from the importance of generating new ideas continually.

And if you have limited resources you might actually have to stop innovating for awhile in order to see a really good Big Idea through.

But I'm focused on something else entirely. And that is:

How do we establish a methodology through which large numbers of actionable innovative ideas can be generated in the first place?

The answer is modular thinking, in which we decompose the aspects of a thing in order to re-compose it in new ways. 
  • Modular programming - develop blocks of code that can create multiple application functionalities. 
  • Modular cooking - use blocks of pre-made food that power an original recipe. 
  • Modular design - use blocks of design elements and put them together in different ways to create original looks for a room.

In the realm of cooking, otherwise untalented chefs learn to become talented and original by first studying established frameworks. Example, by nationality: Chinese, Italian, Indian, Jewish, Mexican. Or you can look at what celebrity chefs do: Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, Julia Child. You can even watch your elders cooking as a child and learn from them.

You decompose what these chefs do, add an element of your own or shuffle things around a bit, and you are now original.

The modular approach has three layers.

The base layer is your meta-framework for innovation. 
  • For example, you may be a situational innovator. This is what you see on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri, where locals who are in the right place at the right time are featured. They didn't have a master plan, but everything just "came together" the right way.
  • You may be a technical innovator with a cause, such as Edward Snowden. If you read "Snowden Speaks: A Vanity Fair Special Report", it is clear that he had incredible technical skills that enabled him to shift his approach on the fly despite the best efforts of the government to stop him.
  • You may be data-and-evidence-driven, and use methods such as competitions and cash challenges to determine which "crazy ideas" are worth pursuing. "Esther Dyson's Healthy Investments," in the Wall Street Journal.

The second layer consists of the building blocks that make sense within the base layer. For example, for a situational innovator, these will consist of whatever ingredients are around for a recipe. A technical innovator will, for example, use modular blocks of code or known technology pieces for a different purpose. A data-and-evidence type will reduce their field of vision to experiments that have a tangible result.

The third, or top layer is where the inspiration is. This is the indescribable, inescapable, hard to duplicate spark that requires individual genius. By supporting this layer with pre-successful methods, it has a far greater chance of success and we are able to support many more experiments with problem-solving.

* All opinions my own.