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Innovation isn’t the opposite of habit, it is the next step

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Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Innovation isn’t the opposite of habit, it is the next step

Scott Miker

I recently wrote an article on habits and routines and pointed out that they become our default settings. This morning while reading Scale by Jeff Hoffman and David Finkel I read a paragraph that aligned perfectly with my message in that article.

It read, “As humans, our default setting is to fall into habitual patterns. We drive the same way to work each day. We shop at the same stores each week. We visit the same Web sites and read the same magazines each month. It’s almost as if we go on autopilot as we live much of our lives.”

I instantly found myself agreeing with his statement. But then he takes a different path than I expected.

It went on to say “But creative breakthroughs don’t come from following routine. They come from seeing the world in a new way.”

It caught my attention but as I read more I started to understand what was meant. The book went on to discuss several ways to create systematic adjustments which result in innovation. By opening yourself up to new experiences, ideas and people, you can start to connect various aspects to create a unique solution to a problem.

The more that I thought about this the more interesting I found it. Most people think that innovation is the opposite of habit. I have heard people even say that creativity, flexibility, and spontaneity are all opposite of systems and habits.

I can recall when I was younger that a friend of mine wanted to play the guitar. Being a guitar player myself I started to give him some tips. He blew off what I had to say and responded that he wanted to be more creative than any other guitar player so he wanted to create his own unique style. He grabbed the guitar and played it backwards as more of a percussive instrument and said “see without knowing how to play the guitar I am free to come up with a new creative way that nobody else would think of.”

The problem that I have found is that people confuse being creative (or flexible, or spontaneous) with being random. Randomness isn’t necessarily better. But if we can use that randomness in a systematic way it may, in fact, provide a much more creative response.

The example that I always give is to look at great musicians. They achieved their level of success with a combination of habit and randomness. When I first learned the guitar I couldn’t play anything. But as I worked at it my hands started to instantly form the right chords and play the right melody. The habits became solidified.

The interesting thing is that my mind started to shift as well. I started out using the technical side of my brain to tell my fingers how to play a D chord. But over time I didn’t need that much input from my technical side. I became free to use my creative side to actually create music! This would not be possible had I not taken the time to solidify the habits necessary to play the guitar.

Instead of innovation, creativity, flexibility or spontaneity being the opposite of habit, it is more beneficial to think of these things as step 2.

Step 1 Form the System

This includes: learning the basics of how to play the guitar, having a process in place for various aspects of business operations, having built a solid relationship with someone, relying on a morning routine that is helping you to achieve your goals, etc.

If you are hired to improve the sales of a business you will likely need to create a general sales process first. If you start with randomness you will not be able to have continued success and will not be able to leverage any insight you gain. You will just continue to have a random response.

Luckily as humans we are hard-wired to start to form repeated responses to similar situations. We form habits and routines. In a business we form processes and procedures.

Step 2 Incorporate Randomness

This is the important part of the process and what will ultimately get you to innovation. Find ways to change things up to see how they impact your system. Expand your experiences, your network of people, and the depth of your knowledge.

Incorporating randomness into systems allows you to test and see if, in fact, the new random aspect helps or hurts the system. Do you get better results or does it lower the quality of what you get?

The Beatles needed to understand how to play their instruments in order to be successful. But if that is all they did, they would have never written such great music. Their success was, in large part, due to their ability to be creative and come up with music that didn’t fit with what was already created.

They are a very clear example that says you must first establish the systems and habits and then look to ways to change things up and gain new perspectives. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can bypass the first part. This will just leave you banging on the back of a guitar instead of playing great music!