So, as an innovator, are you more like Albert Einstein or Martin Luther King?

In the world of innovation there are two types of innovators:

  • Conceptual innovation; and
  • Experimental innovation.

Every time we deal with new situations we try to make sense of them based on our portfolio of (old) concepts.

Once we detected that something is new, we try to make sense of it by making analogies with others things we already know. We do that by using old concepts and bringing back our past experiences.

Gradually we go through the process of extending and changing the old concepts, and in some moment a new concept emerges.

New concepts emerge as new questions are made. This is what conceptual innovation is about.

Einstein’s key insight into the theory of special relativity came from a burst of inspiration.

He was riding a bicycle and thinking about what would happen if his train travelled at the speed of light.

This thought problem triggered an insight, and as he asked himself, we eventually arrived at his special theory.

So that is one model of the creativity, the conceptual innovator, well known by the signature “Eureka!” or “light-bulp” moment.

Experimental innovation on the other hand is innovation by trial and error, we experiment until we find what works.

In an example that I have never seen unpacked before, Adam Grant, in his book: Originals – How Non-Conformists Move the World, uses Martin Luther King’s approach to writing the “I Have a Dream” speech as an example of how years of speaking about civil rights led to the creativity and one-of-a-kind impact of Dr. King’s words:

“Despite being just thirty-four when he gave his “dream” speech, it was his twentieth year of speaking publicly about civil rights.  At fifteen, he made the state finals for delivering an original speech on civil rights”.

Is there any greater way to refine your approach than twenty years of struggling to convince numerous audiences?

Clearly, it was a long road that led to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and a true innovator who spoke to the nation that day.

In virtually every field, experience informs innovation.

Experimentation is the backbone of scientific discovery. 

Even Picasso said “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”  You get the feeling that Picasso knew just which rules to break to give his art the jolt of the new.

Some innovators follow a script: they have a strategy for the music they write, or the paintings they make.

But other innovators continually refine their product until it’s perfect.

While we all have the image of new ideas arriving as a bolt of lightning, many innovations are the result of years of experimentation.

Conceptual innovators are sprinters and experimental innovators are marathoners.

So, are you looking for a Eureka moment, or using your experience to gain new insight?

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