How to be ingenious (inspired by Takashi Murakami) … What is imagination, creativity and innovation? … And where do the best ideas come from?

February 21, 2023

Takashi Murakami is often called the next Andy Warhol, fusing high and low art, combining ideas from both Japan’s rich artistic heritage, and its vibrant consumer culture. But whilst the American icon created multi-million dollar works of art, Murakami is much more interested in creating everyday objects for everyone, from bubble gum and t-shirts to phone covers and limited-edition Louis Vuitton handbags.

He started in the traditions of Japan, then studied “Nihonga” art which is a combination of 19th century eastern and western styles but became distracted by the rise of anime and manga in Japanese eighties culture. He loved the modern styles which connected with people, and the issues and aspirations of today’s society. He was fascinated by what made iconic characters such as Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse so popular and enduring.

Japan has a centuries long tradition of “flat” art, achieved with bold outlines, flat colouring, and a disregard for perspective, depth, and three-dimensionality. “Superflat” was a term Murakami started to use in 2001 and has evolved into one of modern art’s most active movements, combining the traditions flat art with anime and manga, taking components of high and low culture to defy categorisation. He says that he uses the style to also reflect what he sees as the flat, shallowness of consumer culture.

Today Murakami is a rock-star artist, highly aware of his image and brand, and an avid user of social media. He loves fame and commercialism. His business has been helped by collaborations with celebrities, creating animated music videos for Kanye West and designing sculptures with Pharrell Williams.

If “ingenuity” is about thinking and performing in a way that is original and inventive, it is a good descriptor of Murakami. He is inspired by both the past and the future create his own distinctive presence, to connect with and challenges his environment, embrace personal insight and opinion to defy conventions, and them his audience with him.

Imagination, creativity and innovation.

Imagination is often called the primary gift of human consciousness.

In a world of ubiquitous technology which challenges our humanity, a world of infinite yet largely derivative choices, and a world of noise and uncertainty, there is nothing quite like being human.

Imagination move us forwards. It allows us to leap beyond the conventions, the limits of our current world. It takes us beyond the algorithms of AI-enabled robots who can create perfection out of the world which they know, but struggle beyond it. It inspires us to think in new ways, to shape hypotheses to test, and aesthetic designs to enjoy.

Sir Ken Robinson is probably best known for his self-deprecating sense of humour with which he delivers a very important message: “Imagination is the source of all human achievement.” The Times said of his UK government report on creativity, education and the economy that “it raises some of the most important issues facing business in the 21st century. It should have every CEO thumping the table and demanding action.”

His book “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative” argues that our world is the product of the ideas, beliefs and values of human imagination that have shaped it over centuries. He says, “the human mind is profoundly and uniquely creative, but too many people have no sense of their true talents.”

  • Imagination explores new possibilities and captures them as new ideas
  • Creativity shapes and stretches the potential of existing ideas
  • Innovation takes existing ideas and makes them practical

Creativity is applied imagination, innovation is applied creativity, you could say.

I remember back to when my two daughters were young, the pictures they drew and models they built, the questions they asked and answers they imagined. There’s was a world unlimited by experience, by prejudice or conformity. Their brush strokes were simple, their colours bold, their questions were simple but disturbingly difficult.

As adults we shift to a productivity mindset, preferring to get things done, rather than explore possibilities. We seek to reduce complexity to its simplest form and describe ideas in the context of what we already know, squeezing out any nuggets of newness.

We are all born creative, but somehow lose that spark, or at the confidence to allow it out. Some people, we say, are creative, and others not. Yet we all have the same neurons and synapses which drive the process. The reality is that no individual is as creative as even the dullest people once they start working together. If we could reclaim our creativity, we could discover our passion, allowing us to feel more alive, and do so much more.

Harvard professor Howard Gardner identified 8 “intelligences” or ways to solve problems. They range from linguistics (limited only by the words you use), logical (mainly through mathematics), spatial (as used by designers), musical, physical (like athletes), natural (like farmers), intrapersonal (within yourself), and interpersonal (with others).

The point is that we have many ways to be creative, or even combinations of our mental and physical capabilities. As Leonardo da Vinci loved to say, inspired by his own polymath life as artist and musician, anatomist and sculptor, architect and engineer, creativity is ultimately about making new connections.

Innovation makes life better

The purpose of any business, and therefore any innovation, is to make life better. It drives human and social progress, as well as seizing new opportunities for business growth. Whilst it is a practical, technical and process-based challenge, it is also human and philosophical, strategic and futuristic.

The Royal Society of Arts recently published a document “How to be Ingenious” starting with a definition of ingenuity as having three components:

  • an inclination to work with the resources easily to hand
  • a knack for combining these resources in a surprising way
  • and in doing so, an ability to solve some practical problem

Another way to describe it is the ability to do unexpectedly more for less in the face of constrained resources. Given the social and environmental challenges facing every business today, that might be a useful addition.

The Huit Denim Company is a great innovator for social good. Cardigan, a small town on the west coast of Wales, used to have Britain’s biggest jeans factory. It employed 400 people in a town of 4,000 people, making 35,000 pairs a week, but it closed suddenly in 2001. It had a huge effect on employment, but also on confidence in the town.

David and Claire Hieatt responded by deciding that they would to try to get 400 people their jobs back. Huit Denim Co was born, and now with a cult global following. Their semi-automated, hand-stitched process still takes 5 times as long as most jeans factories, but they can then sell them online direct to consumer for $300 a pair, securing a profit margin that keeps the town in work again.

A more inspired approach to innovation

Innovation demands human ingenuity.

It is exciting, it is about people, about the future, with limitless possibilities.

It is an essential role of every business leader, every business function. Whilst innovation has long centred around the tangible, technical icon of the product, organisations have finally opened their minds to many more forms of innovation.

Innovation used to be associated with long, disciplined, stage-gated processes by which ideas were productised and taken to market. Today’s innovators, in small and large businesses, get excited by design thinking and lean development. These are useful tools to create more insightful and faster solutions, but there is much more to innovation.

A more inspired approach to innovation has 9 dimensions

  • Human-centred rather than driven by products
  • Problem-solving rather than limited by capability
  • Future shaping rather than aligning with today
  • Whole business rather than functionally isolated
  • Fast and experimental rather than slow and perfect
  • Sustainable impact rather than profit obsessed
  • Active adaptation rather than launch and forgotten
  • Growth driving rather than unaligned commercially
  • Portfolio building rather than isolated innovations

Innovation is not like most other business functions and activities. There is no department or VP of innovation in most companies. There is rarely even an innovation strategy or budget. There are few standard templates, rules, processes, or consistent measures of success. In a sense, each act of innovation is a unique feat, a leap of imagination that can be neither predicted nor replicated. It is certainly not business as usual.

That’s also the beauty. Innovation is pervasive, a challenge for every function and person across the business. It can have process, but it can also break all the rules, and sometimes needs to. By being rooted in every part of the business, and drawing on budgets from each, it can be a more collaborative, integrated and formidable approach.

Leaders are the ultimate innovators in companies, not necessarily entrepreneurs as in the founders of start-ups, but setting the agenda, ensuring that it has the resources and space to thrive, and that the business delivers today, but also creates a better tomorrow.

The lucky iron fish

When Canadian science graduate Christopher Charles visited Cambodia, he discovered that anaemia was a huge public health problem.

In the villages of Kandai province, instead of bright young children, Charles found many were small and weak with slow mental development. Women were suffering from tiredness and headaches, and were unable to work. Pregnant women faced serious complications before and after childbirth. He realised that anaemia was a huge problem, with almost 50% of women and children suffering due to a deficiency of iron in their diets. Regular solutions, like iron supplements, were neither affordable or available, and were distrusted by many people.

Charles had a novel idea. Inspired by previous research which showed that cooking in cast iron pots increased the iron content of food, he decided to put a lump of iron into the cooking pot, made from melted-down metal. However people rejected that too, not keen on a coarse lump of metal mixed into their food.

He searched deeper into local anthropology, and then hit upon the symbol of luck in Cambodian culture, the fish. He recast his iron in the shape of a fish, and called it the “Lucky Iron Fish”, and designed it to release iron at the right concentration to provide the nutrients that so many women and children in the country were lacking.

Scientific analysis showed that, by using the iron fish each day, it provided 75% of an adult’s daily recommended intake of iron. In practice he found that within 12 months, around half of those using it were no longer anaemic, and after 3 years, then condition was largely eliminated.

Where do good ideas come from?

The romance of the “eureka” moment, when amazingly smart individuals have sudden creative epiphanies, and jump out of their overflowing baths like Archimedes, is unrealistic.

In “Where Good Ideas Come From” Stephen Johnson says that most new ideas emerge out of the fragments of others, a product of new environments which allow new possibilities. Indeed most good ideas can actually be broken down into the useful remains of the failures of others.

Bill Gates tells how the origins of Microsoft, lay not in a flash of genius, but evolved from many hours with his friend Paul Allen tinkering with their high school’s mainframe computers, a culture of change blowing through society, and a hunch that computers could be made much smaller and more connected.

Crisis, recessions, wars are often the birthplace of new ideas, as markets are shaken-up, consumers think differently, and there is an urgency to create something different, cheaper, faster, better. Microsoft’s founding environment in 1975 was shaped by an economic downturn that put an end to years of post-war growth. Similarly, Disney in 1929, McDonalds in 1955, CNN in 1980, Airbnb in 2008, all emerged out of tough times

Taking inspiration from Johnson, here are nine sources of better ideas:

  • Adjacent ideas: most innovations are derived from the fragments of what exists today, bringing together other ideas, new capabilities, or aspirations.
  • Evolving ideas: most new concepts tend to emerge slowly, gaining acceptance as they mature, and their founders gain confidence in their evolving work.
  • Building ideas: ideas tend to build on each other like platforms, Apple’s insight into computing led to the iPod, to iTunes, to iPhones, to AppStore.
  • Network ideas: exposing ideas to more people, enables them to spread faster, and for ideas to multiply in richness and rise in crowds.
  • Collaborative ideas: openness of ideas allow them to grow further and faster, rather than competition that restricts them and patents that hide them.
  • Random ideas: sometimes new possibilities emerge by chance, out of chaos or unintended actions driving lucky combinations or new insights.
  • Serendipitous ideas: ideas converge in a shared physical or intellectual space, bringing a diversity of people together and enabling creative collisions.
  • Unconventional ideas: Errors can be surprisingly creative moments, because they challenge what we think is right, and show possibility beyond convention.
  • Recycled ideas: Expatiation is when something developed for a specific purpose is eventually used in a completely different way.

Ideas are the currency of today’s world. Where machines can outperform us at anything which we already know, we need ideas to move us forwards. In the business world, we codify ideas into intellectual properties – patents, designs, trademarks, and brands.

Ideas are packages of consciousness, of creativity, and of inspiration. As a result, they are not only the building blocks of the future, of innovations and progress, they also captivate us, they give us hope, they fuel our dreams and desires, we want them.

Troublemakers and rulebreakers

“Rebels have a bad reputation”, says Francesca Gino, a behavioural scientist. “Rebels are people who break rules that should be broken. They break rules that hold them and others back, and their way of rule breaking is constructive rather than destructive. It creates positive change.”

Gino tells the story of the time when she was browsing the shelves at a bookstore when she came across an unusual-looking book in the cooking section: Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef by Massimo Bottura. The recipes in it were playful, quirky and improbable. Snails were paired with coffee sauce, veal tongue with charcoal powder. Francesca, who is Italian, says remixing classic recipes like this is a kind of heresy in Italian cooking. “We really cherish the old way,” she says. But this chef, one of the most influential in the world, couldn’t resist circling back to one, big question: Why do we have to follow these rules?

“We think of them as troublemakers, outcasts, contrarians: those colleagues, friends, and family members who complicate seemingly straightforward decisions, create chaos, and disagree when everyone else is in agreement. But in truth, rebels are also those among us who change the world for the better with their unconventional outlooks. Instead of clinging to what is safe and familiar, and falling back on routines and tradition, rebels defy the status quo. They are masters of innovation and reinvention, and they have a lot to teach us.”

Gino argues that the future belongs to the rebel. Curiosity and insistence on questioning the status quo are among the qualities she believes separate good leaders from great ones, and the people who can’t wait to get to work from the ones who count the minutes until they can leave. These qualities are part of an instinct to rebel against what feels comfortable. Adopting them she says is the key to “creativity, productivity, and making work suck less”.

Start by asking better questions

Start by asking why … then why, why, why, why, why, why.

The “seven whys” is an incredibly simple technique when talking to somebody and seeking to understand their real problem. As you learn more, keep asking why again, each time delving deeper into the real drivers of a problem. If you can get to the bottom of a problem, then of course, you have a better opportunity to solve it.

“The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question. For there are few things as useless, if not dangerous, as the right answer to the wrong question” said Peter Drucker.

Drucker’s insight has long been an inspiration for Hal Gregersen who is based at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He believes that the best starting point for innovation is to ask powerful provocative questions. The most innovative leaders question the world constantly, provoking others to think openly and differently.

Key to this is asking the right questions, or “catalytic questions” as he calls them – what if, why not –  questions that breakdown the limits of people’s current thinking, allow them to challenge more of the conventions, to see things from different perspectives, and accelerate their better thinking.

Gregerson uses his distinctive “Question Burst” methodology as an alternative to more conventional brainstorming-type approaches. These seek to explore the question through rapid collaboration, rather than jumping to the answer.  This allows people to concentrate on the problem, rather than jump to quickly and superficially to solutions.

He uses three steps in the process:

  • Explore the challenge: Select a challenge you care deeply about. Invite a few people to help you consider that challenge from fresh angles. Ideally, choose people who have no direct experience with the problem and whose worldview is starkly different from yours. In two minutes, describe the challenge.
  • Expand the question: Spend the next four minutes collectively generating as many questions as possible about the challenge. Don’t answer any of the questions and don’t explain why you’re asking the questions. Go for at least 15-20 questions in four fast minutes. Write them down word for word.
  • Commit to the quest: Consider the questions and select a few “catalytic” questions from the list, ones that hold the most potential for disrupting the status quo. Commit to pursuing at least one new pathway you’ve glimpsed, and use that as the foundation of the problem to solve

As we progress through organisations to become business leaders, we shift from functional experts where we are expected to have all the answers, to a broader perspective where our most useful contributions, to ask better questions. At the same time, with years of experience we feel we know much more than many others, and can become closed and defensive, rather than good listeners. Former Uber CEO, Travis Kalanik was caught on video whilst taking a ride being challenged about the business by his driver who was unaware of his passenger’s identity. Kalanik’s defensive verbal attack on the driver went viral and resulted in him being fired.

© Peter Fisk. Excerpts from his book “Business Recoded: Have the courage to create a better future” published by Wiley.

More for business leaders from Peter Fisk:

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  • 49 Codes to help you develop a better business future
  • 250 companies innovators shaking up the world
  • 100 leaders with the courage to shape a better future
  • Education that is innovative, issue-driven, action-driving
  • Consulting that is collaborative, strategic and innovative
  • Speaking that is inspiring, topical, engaging and actionable

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