Monday, February 20, 2012

The Aesthetics of Innovating: Sixth Sense of Innovators

When I was in the innovation management group at Kimberly-Clark in the early 1980s we
asked then CEO Darwin Smith how he would judge ideas worthy of further investment. He told us there are only two things we need to worry about: “shoemaker stick to your last” and “make it snappy.” As to the first, much has been written about core business and core competencies and adjacencies to the core. Of the second, much less has been written or said, partly because what one person may regard as “snappy,” another person may not.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” It is difficult to deny the fact that what one person sees as plain or common, another might see as beautiful and fresh. Subjectivity in assessing the potential of an idea, particularly a new idea, is probably inescapable. At the very least, when it comes to assigning potential value to an embryonic innovation—ultimately one that will require some investment of the innovating company’s limited resources—who the assigner or beholder is matters a great deal.

When asked how he and his peers decide what ideas to pursue further, one of our more experienced innovators says it depends in part on how “cute” it is. He defined cute as the idea or invention’s ability to speak for itself, in terms of its relevance to customer need and the core business. The less explanation the idea needs, the more its “cute” quotient. While his explanation made sense, it did not avoid the subjectivity problem. To which he quickly reassured me that it wasn’t his perception of cuteness alone that made the difference. Rather, it was a shared sense of “cuteness,” shared with the CEO and corporate development officer, and, eventually, others.

That there is an aesthetic factor at play in how ideas are judged, along with all the other analytics, is likely inescapable.  And while subjectivity is frequently regarded as something to minimize or escape, there may be another, more subtle point worth considering. This subjectivity may be something to welcome instead of something to avoid.

An aesthetic sensibility is something often not associated with engineers and technologists engaged in the more mundane trenches of innovation efforts. However, I am increasingly persuaded that experienced and more successful innovators have a deep sense for the aesthetics of the innovation they are developing. Shape, symmetry, simplicity, elegance in the way the problem is solved or solution is delivered or the need met or profit increased, all weigh heavily for the innovator. Perhaps subjectivity—or at least an aesthetic sensitivity—should be embraced rather than avoided or sacrificed to the dogma of analysis and data. 

While I am not against sound analysis of valid data, I am suggesting that we might want to pay even more attention to our individual and shared sense of what is cute or beautiful in the innovation as a necessary compliment to all the data that we can amass, anecdotal and otherwise, when we assess whether a particular innovation deserves more or not. 

We all know that a lot of frogs have to be kissed before a prince or princess appears. But how can innovators differentiate between frogs and royalty, without relying on their aesthetic sense? Furthermore, what is this sixth sense? If the innovator beholds beauty in the nascent innovation, what does the innovator perceive, if not the intersection of function, fit and form?

The Irish poet John Keats finished one of his poems with the phase “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Perhaps that’s all the innovator needs to know in the sincere and evidence-based belief that the customer will recognize it too.    


This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 2006. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270.   

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