How to See What’s Not There

persist_thaumatropeThe other day I participated in an innovation day for the supply chain management division of a large company. The morning was spent on several presentations about how the group had innovated over the past year. One of the major innovations was a regular meeting in which suppliers and customers could talk with one another.

Now, I think this is a great idea, and I’m sure it made things more efficient for everyone. But as good an idea as it is, a regular communication meeting is not breakthrough innovation.

I see this kind of thing a lot — companies patting themselves on the back for breakthrough innovations that are really incremental improvements. Incremental improvement is powerful and positive, but it’s not the same as breakthrough innovation. Incremental change results from Reproductive Thinking. But for game changing innovation, you need Productive Thinking. Here’s the difference:

Reproductive Thinking is a way to refine what’s known. Think of continuous improvement, Six Sigma, or positive incremental change. It’s what you need for ferreting out inefficiencies, improving quality, and ensuring consistent outcomes. Reproductive Thinking is characterized by what the Japanese call kaizen, or good change.

Productive Thinking is a way to generate the new. Think of big AHAs, eureka moments, and breakthrough change. It’s what you need for seeding innovation, disrupting the marketplace, and changing the rules of the game. Productive Thinking is characterized by what I call tenkaizen, or good revolution.

Both types of thinking are useful, but if you want to create something truly new, Reproductive Thinking is the wrong tool. You need Productive Thinking.

When you were a kid, you probably had a thaumatrope. A thaumatrope isn’t a childhood disease; it’s a toy, popularized in Victorian England. It consists of a small disk with a picture on either side, mounted on string that lets you spin it. If you get the disk spinning fast enough, the two pictures merge. A common thaumatrope shows a bird on one side and an empty birdcage on the other. When you twirl the disk, you see the bird in the cage. Although there is no actual picture of a bird in a cage, you see it as clear as can be. You see a picture of something that isn’t there.

Productive Thinking is like spinning a thaumatrope. It’s a way of combining old ideas and insights to make something new.

Striving for reproductive efficiency is great. By all means, go for it. But don’t think that’s the same as game-changing innovation. You can’t fool yourself into being innovative. You need to learn how to think productively.

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