Earlier this month, Donna Howell wrote a piece on J. M. Lapeyre for Investor’s Business Daily. Lapeyre, who died in 1989, noticed something while he was still in high school in the 1940s. It was what happened to a shrimp when you step on it in a certain way. The shrimp is separated from the shell. This caused Lapeyre to experiment with different kinds of rollers and led to the development of automated devices to shell shrimp, something that had been done manually until Lapeyre came along.
Lapeyre went on to realize many other innovations. The article quotes J. M. Lapeyre’s son to say that his father’s “‘inventive capability was a combination of a few elements . . . One was a commitment that everything in reality integrated, so he understood to look for commonalities and themes across areas of physical reality.'”
Innovation is a process full of paradox. Innovators have an unusual blend of passionate curiosity coupled with a detached ability to look hard at reality while not predetermining the outcome of what they will see. Innovation almost never happens when you expect it. It almost always requires the due diligence of rigorous preparation, but you can rarely predict or schedule when a breakthrough will occur. You can’t plan discovery. The more linearly we try to arrange information, the more likely that our conclusions will be contrived and forced. It’s generally the accidents that are the most revealing and informative breakthroughs. However, if you just sit back and wait for beneficial accidents to happen, they almost never will.
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi was a Hungarian physiologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1937 and is largely acknowledged as the discoverer of Vitamin C. Szent-Gyorgyi’s scientific interests spanned a vast range and included quantum mechanics and cancer research. Perhaps his most memorable achievement was his skill in articulating how scientific breakthroughs happen. His wisdom is well summarized in two penetrating quotes:
▪ “A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.”
▪ “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”
I would compare this kind of mental dexterity to the agility of a disciplined professional athlete. Regularly I am in contact with remarkably successful entrepreneurs, and they all seem to share this same kind of highly toned “mental muscle.”
Whenever you are in frustrated in your pursuit of a creative breakthrough, I have five tips I would offer to you that might increase your likelihood of arriving at an innovation:
▪ If you are working with a large body of research data, change the order in which you review or present the material. Often the mind makes very subtle but firm conclusions simply based on the sequence in which information is learned or presented.
▪ Look for integrative commonalities even in things that seem quite different. In Lapeyre’s case, his shrimp sheller was the result of out-of-the-box thinking on how to create a machine that would work like a human foot applying pressure in a certain way.
▪ Think carefully about the input devices you are using to stimulate your creativity. It’s hard to innovate through focus groups, for example, because often people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
▪ When you are presented with an idea – especially a new one – be alert to your emotional reactions. Very often a “rational” objection to an idea is really based on an emotional prejudice, and the reasoning is contrived simply to support our feelings.
▪ Being open-minded isn’t easy. Try meditating, and I’m not advocating it for mystical or spiritual reasons. Try to free your mind of thought completely for five seconds, and you will find how hard that can be. Our thinking is often crowded and impaired by powerful assumptions, and meditation can be an efficient way to wipe the slate clean.