Learning to innovate: an abstract art?
Many companies and organisations may not have noticed that innovation means something else than more research, more technology, more money, or taking more risks. All these factors comes after the conception of an idea for innovation. Inventing ideas is thinking. And a truly innovative idea does not exist – it is only in the mind.
Successful innovation is never a product in itself. Success always lies in the underlying concept. This includes the way we think about the usefulness, the use, and value of the product.
On the other hand, in an abstract artwork, the artist attempts tovisualise an abstract concept. Or the artist creates what had never been before to explore unexpected but conceivable possibilities. But this is exactly what the creation of effective innovations is all about.
A connection between abstract thinking and innovation
There is a connection between abstract thinking and innovation, but what does it look like in reality? And is it possible to teach innovation? Could abstract art play a role?
If everyone makes the same product, it is all about who delivers the best quality at the lowest cost. Everyone plays the same game and ultimately the profit margins approach zero. Especially in view of the emerging economies, it is wise to play another game, to be unique in the market. A search for something new that does not already exist. Instead of more-of-the same ideas, break-through ideas are required. Therefore, it is necessary to abstract from the concrete manifestations, properties, phenomena and behaviour of a product or problem.
There is a remarkable relationship between creative thinking and the historical developments in art, such as surrealism and abstract art. Broadly speaking there are three schools in creative thinking and they share some similarities with art movements.
Brainstorming and the works of Picasso and Dali
One of the most classical methods for creative thinking is brainstorming. This approach mainly frees and releases inhibitions so that we can associate. The troubleshooting technique was developed by Alex Osborn around the Second World War. In essence, the technique dates back to Sigmund Freud’s ideas of psychoanalysis at the beginning of the twentieth century. The idea behind brainstorming, and numerous variations on it, is that if you free the child within yourself, ideas bubble up naturally. The technique of brainstorming reminiscent of Surrealism in the works of Picasso and Dali.
TRIZ and Mondriaan
A very different technique for generating ideas is the systematic approach used in TRIZ. In the 50s, Genrich Altshuller developed TRIZ, a Russian acronym for Theory of Structured Inventions. In the beginning of 2000, emigration of professionally trained TRIZ innovators from Russia, brought the theory to the West. Altshuller examined inventions and divided them into classes of the underlying thoughts of the inventor. In TRIZ, a concrete problem is translated to a description that has no longer any specific association with the original problem. The problem is made abstract. Subsequently, from a collection of abstract solutions, the result of Altshuller’s study, an abstract, theoretical solution is chosen. From this a translation into a concrete solution is made.
This method, which is supported by a database of thousands of inventions, prevents the tendency to move to the obvious. The technique is extremely powerful but little used in the west; however, it is popular in many Asian companies.
TRIZ is the art form of geometric abstraction, where ideas are presented in pure geometric forms. An example is the work of Piet Mondriaan.
Lateral Thinking and Kandinsky
Another technique of deliberate creativity is based on the idea that our brain is a self-organising information processing system. We take information in our memory and organise it into patterns. Those patterns will behave as thinking avenues so that we only see where we are already prepared for. Edward de Bono developed the sixties a couple of thinking techniques that logically destabilise automatic thought patterns. He calls this lateral thinking – thinking laterally – as distinguished from the normal logical and rational thinking, what could be named as vertical thinking.
You could say that the lateral thinking has features of abstract expressionism. We find vague, disturbed or magnified form and this invites us to new interpretations of the existing idea. The art of Kandinsky is an example.
Teaching thinking and perceiving by abstract art
The latter two methods, lateral thinking and TRIZ, are difficult to learn. In essence, it is about the way we perceive and think. How we escape from the compelling logic of thinking is explained in terms of abstract concepts. Concepts that refer in vague terms to thinking operations, to how to think, or what steps successively to take.
Abstract thinking therefore appears only to be taught by the use of abstract concepts. But is there a possibility to circumvent this paradox? As outlined above, the abstract art could provide an intuitive solution. It might be that innovative thinking can be taught in the most practical and verifiable way by abstract art and the making thereof. Directly and without theoretical detours, that would be a discovery!
Jan Verhoeven‘s ideas behind the Center for Abstract Art and Innovation can sometimes prove to be decisive for the further professionalisation of creative thinking and innovation. Of course, only afterwards, as is usual in real innovations.
Photo: Idea From Finger by tungphoto, By J. Crocker (J. Crocker) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons, By Wm M. Martin (http://masterpieceart.net/vasily-kandinsky/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons