Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The difference between innovation and sloppiness

I took a couple of art classes in college. In Life Drawing we were supposed to look at the arrangement or person in front of us and put it on paper. In pencil, then charcoal, then ink … watercolor … oil … etc.

I was always good at photorealism. I might not have been fast, but I had some pencil drawings that could have passed (at a distance) for black-and-white photos.

There was another student, an art major who fancied himself an "artiste". His work spanned the range from abstract to really abstract. He looked down on my mere technical facility.

But my grades were as good as his, sometimes better. It seems when he talked about his rejection of formal rules, it really meant he wasn't able to do realism. He didn't have the command of the tools, the mere technical facility. So everything he did owed as much to chance as to intent.

He may have been right, that I didn't have the creativity to do modern art. I'll admit that I appreciate paintings that simply look good, without high-flying pretension or socio-political overtones. I guess I'll never have a SOHO gallery showing. C'est la vie.

But with all his fervor, and whatever glorious visions he had in his head, he couldn't reliably get them onto the paper. He couldn't create something specific, on purpose.

[Cue un-subtle segue ... ]

But what does this have to do with the business world? Scott Berkun wrote recently about how constraints can help creative thinking. When a large corporation does "blue sky" thinking, they can wander aimlessly and never produce. Constraints set a direction.

But I think there's another problem with "blue sky" thinking that goes beyond a lack of direction. It's summed up by Voltaire's famous maxim:

The perfect is the enemy of the good.
When a company tries to "blue sky" a problem, they are implicitly seeking perfection: With no limits, what would be possible?

But there are always limits. They may be self-imposed, inconsequential, misunderstood, overblown, or in any number of other ways not real limits. And it helps to know the difference.

When you start out by asking people what they would do if there were no constraints, don't be surprised when they come back with a solution that can't possibly work. And then convince themselves that theirs is the only possible solution. By then, you've already lost.

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