Think: the Second Step in Innovation

Think first, then act.

In the first step of innovation, we discussed observation, and how Galileo conceived of the pendulum clock years before it would ultimately be invented. But, of course, Galileo wasn’t the first to look at a swinging chandelier. What made the difference was his approach to what he saw, his method of thought.

Centuries later, another brilliant innovator, IBM’s Thomas Watson, became famously obsessed with thought. His one-word motto for the company was “THINK,” and you still find that motto in force at IBM today. He often went further: IBM’s collection of quotes has, among others, Watson’s argument to think first, then act:

“The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough. We don’t get paid for working with our feet—we get paid for working with our heads. Feet can never compete with brains.” 

So what does it mean to think, especially when it comes to innovation?

Thought And Innovation

Watson’s approach to thought can really be summed up by a much older proverb: “Measure twice, cut once.” Watson saw the thought process, unsurprisingly, as a linear thing: He wanted his employees to consider what they were doing, step by step, and ask themselves why they were doing it. Mindlessly following commands was against the culture Watson wanted to build.

In other words, Watson’s idea of thinking is very much an active one. True thought involves critical consideration of everything, from the assumptions you’re working off of to even your own thought process. If you really step back and look at how you deal with day-to-day problems, you might find that you’ve picked a solution and keep going back to it because it’s worked in the past, even if there’s a better way that’s right there.

So, how do you encourage this, in your innovation strategy? Really it comes down to a simple question: Why?

The Power Of Why

We all have our reasons for why we do things, but we rarely unpack and consider those reasons, even when we should. Often one of the greatest roadblocks to innovation is that we don’t think through the entire process from the ground up. IBM was famous for demanding that employees constantly question their own assumptions, which was particularly crucial in an industry where advancements seen as science fiction in 1960 were old technology in 1965.

Approach matters.

“THINK,” to Watson, was a verb. It was something you did actively, not passively. Thought is not guided, it leads. If something is a certain way, why is it that way? Can it be reconfigured, deconstructed, rebuilt, reconsidered? If you see the consequences of a decision playing out a certain way, is that set in stone, or are you just assuming that’s the only way it could happen?

In other words, thinking is work. If it’s easy, it’s probably not thinking in the first place. But, as Watson said in the quote we cited at the beginning, that’s why we collect our salaries in the first place.

With Forethought

Thinking isn’t the beginning and end of innovation. It’s famously held in the military that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and this is as true of peaceful business as it is of violent warfare. But thought is where the rubber of innovation meets the road of making it a physical reality. Active, careful thinking will ensure that your innovation is more than just an idle idea.

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