Our colleague, intellectual property counsel, Jim O'Shaughnessy recently suggested we read the book, Innovation: The Missing Dimension by Richard K. Lester and Michael J. Piore (2004). Their essay rightly suggests that not only does innovation require both analysis and interpretation, but that for a variety of reasons, we tend to over-do the analysis and under-do the interpretation. This is one reason, the authors contend, why innovation is so often “missing.”
Years ago I learned the importance of striking a balance between analysis and interpretation in another context—when I was learning how to analyze very old and familiar biblical texts and attempting to craft something new and meaningful for my Sunday morning listeners. Text can be analyzed. Context must be interpreted—both the context of the text and that of the listeners. If one relies on analysis alone, the message tends to be lifeless, dry and at best difficult to hear. If, on the other hand, one relies only on interpretation, the message risks losing substance, even though it may be easier to follow with the ear.
The major point of the book struck a chord with what often happens at the so-called “front end” of innovation efforts. In the rush to discover some new and proprietary insight before it is generally recognized (particularly by the competition) what consumers say or do is often canonized and regarded as sacred “text.” Prematurely we apply sophisticated analytical methods to these texts, often ignoring important elements of context. Quickness to analyze is aided and abetted by a general discomfort in dealing with ambiguity. The result is too often partial or erroneous conclusions regarding what consumers want and need and how important it is to them.
"There is no information lacking…something else is lacking…a something one person cannot directly communicate to another,” the Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, stated over 100 years ago. His observation seems just as relevant today as it undoubtedly was back then.
One of the first, if not the first, challenge for the innovator is to interpret—to creatively “read” the end-user's context—whether cultural, technological or otherwise. To discover and understand something important the competition does not yet see concerning current or potential end-users—for example, “a job the consumer needs doing”—requires interpretive ability as much, if not more, than analytical acumen. And interpretation is best done through direct and indirect conversations with others, frequently, Lester and Piore suggest, requiring a “protected” space.
Recently I found myself trying to define the word “protocol” to my eight-year-old daughter. (Why we were mutually interested in that word is another story.) My first attempt led me to tell her how diplomats rely on protocol to communicate correctly between two countries with very different languages and cultures. When I realized that illustration wasn't working, I tried defining “protocol” from the world of computers and the Internet. I said, “You know when you want to visit Disney.com? It's a protocol that allows your computer to find and connect with the computer over at Disney.com.” She actually understood that definition better than my first attempt with diplomacy.
Established protocols are available and essential for interpreters to follow wherein interaction and communication patterns are known. However, for the innovator who deals with novelty, established protocols don't yet exist, patterns of interaction and communication are unknown. There is no established protocol. The job of the innovator is to create one—to make a meaningful connection. And this requires interpretation.
The innovator is an interpreter. He or she stands between two different worlds, each with its own linguistic and cultural signatures. To effectively interpret requires sufficient knowledge, empathetic imagination and understanding of both to adequately discover a new and meaningful connection between the two. Proficient interpreters can work quickly to translate the words—text. Excellent ones translate the text in context bringing richness and meaning in the appropriate intonation of their voice.
Successful innovations are built upon the foundation of interpretive activity as they arise from the discovery of meaningful new connections across the boundaries (real or imagined) of previously unconnected worlds. The innovator’s job is to design and build those bridges, based on firm foundations of understanding, both in the world of the company's know-how and the other world—the world of meaning and value to people the innovator seeks to serve.
Perhaps this is what Albert Einstein was alluding to when he mused, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” To that we might only add, “empathy.”
This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in May 2005. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 460-1313.