Innovation insights at Flying Car MKE
In Milwaukee of 2002, I led a group of folks into a warehouse near downtown to create what would become one of our nation’s first collaborative spaces: Bucketworks. The design challenge we were solving for was creating a place that could be open to all, and to enable their ideas, innovations, creativity, and community. To meet this challenge, we knew we would need to create rules or guidelines for people to follow--but at the same time, we needed to create an environment that spoke deeply to freedom. The freedom within our hearts and our imaginations to create anything, and to share our creations with a wider community. When building community for old and young, for open and closed, for creative and constructive, for business and theatre and art and technology and everything in between, a place that could be open to anything and support anyone-- would we need a lot of rules? Just to control the chaos or reduce it? We hoped not. We chose a different path. We put up a whiteboard in the middle of the room and used it to document some guidelines that over the course of three years became a set of principles for innovation and creativity, for living and making. Every time we wrote down a new idea, we would find a way to shorten it, to make it easier to remember, and of course we kept testing the ideas to see if they truly worked in any situation.
You are all familiar with the idea of an extensional principle--a good example is "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"-- it doesn't matter how you do that, only that you do. Each principle offers a wide degree of freedom in terms of how it is applied, while still stipulating an outcome to look for, or a limit to reach.
I offer you these principles as practical tools, and if you let them into your heart, you will find them working on you in mysterious ways. Here they are:
Start up open
When beginning anything new, open your mind to what is possible. This may seem banal, but it's really important. Take a breath, take a pause, and look around. Open your eyes open your ears open your heart to what could be. Prime yourself for the surprise because it will inevitably show up. If you are not open, you may miss it. Openness can come from any source. Stand and stare at something. Take a deep breath. Listen to the sounds around you. Start up open.
Ask permission later
We needed to speak directly to freedom with this one. To invite people to be creative, especially people who didn’t believe they were, we wanted to remove the first barrier to entry--”Can I do this?” and make the moment of action follow the moment of intention as closely as possible. When bringing something new into the world, no one will ask you to start. In fact most of the time people will object to what you're trying to do. For one reason or another, we are resistant to changing things. It takes a commitment to take action and take risk to bring something new into the world. The only permission you need to give is permission to yourself. Most of our most pressing challenges won’t ask you to solve them. Ask permission later.
Make suggestions happen
We all know it is very easy to create hundreds of new ideas. When we start creating new ideas, we have to work with other people to get them off the ground. When making suggestions, like what should be, or what could be, we express the energy of an idea without the commitment to take it out and do it. Especially when collaborating with others, it is important to just make things happen. All of us have worked groups where one or more of the other members of the group didn't necessarily carry their share of the burden. But they're all too often willing to share their ideas of what should be. Don't be one of these people. Make your suggestions happen.
Aim for re-use
It doesn't matter what you're trying to do; if you think ahead, if you think about how others will use what you have created later, even much later, even generations later, you will end up with a better result. In Milwaukee, there are many great organizations and efforts that aim for reuse, but this idea goes beyond the environment. How you document what you do, how you write the code, how you mount the painting, how you stack the shelf-- aiming for reuse is everywhere. When you aim for re-use you reduce resources, you make things easier for those who come after, and you preserve our enviroment. Aim for re-use.
Explore existing examples
When the glimmer of an idea enters our hearts, it often feels at that first moment like it must be completely original and unique. Every idea contains within it this intense attraction. This idea is the only one! As soon as you feel this way look into the world, because you're sure to find some examples that will point you in the right direction. How many startups have you met that have already been done? So what if they have? Take a moment to explore and see what there already is that can help you on your way. Explore existing examples.
Give yourself permission to jam out. Just make something happen when you're not sure exactly whether or not it will work. Sometimes creating something temporary can be better than creating something permanent. Improvisation is a vital skill in the innovation process and in the creative process. Like jazz musicians glancing at one another on the stage as they perform, improvisation also gives you a chance to work with others in a different way, to forgive one another for the simple mistakes so that you can discover the most important mistakes. Creating opportunities to make mistakes results in healthier ideas as you design and create. Improvise.
Separate change from what stays the same
This principle is a little tricky to think through. Those of you who write software will know exactly what this one is about, and in fact this idea comes from the world of teaching computers how to do work that's meaningful for humans. Every idea, and every system includes a part that stays the same, and a part that changes. Some of you may remember back in the 20th century, checks used to have 19 and a blank on them, so that you could just write the last two digits of the year. In the year 2000 we had to throw away these checks. The part that stays the same is the year blank; the part that changes is the year. Separate what changes from what stays the same.
Find or make over buy
These are in priority order. If you are trying to bring something new into the world, first find what you can use that already exists. This is your cheapest and simplest option. There may already be the right component, the right code, the right image to serve as a part of your idea. If you can’t find what you need, make it. Making things is healthier for you. Everyone is a maker, and everyone makes. Only if you can’t find what you need, or make what you need, should you buy it. The process of trying to find and make will ultimately help you make a more informed purchasing decision. Find or make over buy.
Keep it simple, make it simpler
Every idea--from a city government to a water catchment system--has an interface, and every idea has an experience. To ensure that anyone can use anything, keep it simple and make it simpler. Who can use what you have made today? Is it as accessible as possible? Can anyone pick it up? No matter how simple something is, it can always be simplified. Preserve the simplicity things already have--and work to make it simpler. Keep it simple, make it simpler.
Keep it safe, make it safer
We were collaborating and creating in a warehouse, with forklifts and power tools--so we needed a principle about safety. But we quickly realized that this principle is about more than physical risk. Safety is as much about emotion and social interaction as it is about physical risk. Every idea has a safety factor--a job, a profession, a career, a talent, a tool--and every safety can be safer. Every conversation can be safer. Safer to share an idea. Safer to feel welcomed in an unfamiliar environment. Safer to be of one gender or another, amongst those your opposite. Safer to take risks and admit to mistakes. Keep it safe, make it safer.
Discover Potential Changes
Everything can be changed. This is partly why we're all here, to introduce and learn and build new things. Any idea can be looked at in terms of what might be changed about it. Any system, any organization. Look at everything and anything in terms of what might be changed. Even the things that seem most unchangeable, most entrenched, ultimately can change. Could computers go from rooms to pockets to eyes? Yes! Could organizations go from hierarchies to more flexible and adaptive collaborations? Yes! Could health get ahead of illness? Yes. Discover potential changes.
Preserve original things
At the same time, not everything needs to be changed. Many things are just trying the way they are. If it's not broke, don't fix it. But this goes deeper, because a lot of ideas we create, especially in Milwaukee, are good as they are. But we often will pass them by, rather than using what we have. Preserving the original means respecting the creations of those who come before. Using them as they are, and allowing them to have their own voice. Sometimes it makes more sense to repurpose what is there, and not change it in any way. Preserve original things.
Write before you finish
Documentation is key. If you think about it, many of these other principles depend on the idea of transmitting our learning from one mind to another. Nothing that you do can be said to be truly done until you have written about it. And I don't just mean reflecting, I don't just mean thinking about what you did, I mean writing it down. Writing it down and sharing it for others to benefit. Every project suffers from a lack of documentation, every initiative leaves behind only a part of all the wisdom gained by those who did it. If you make writing the last step before you're finished, you will build a personal archive and ensure that your ideas resonate throughout time and generations into the future. Write before you finish.
End up done
It is hard to finish. But ending up done the most important thing. Sometimes the world tells you when you are done, and sometimes you tell yourself when you're done. This is the difference between work and play! With some ideas, you need to follow the long roller coaster ride with the idea and it will tell you when you are done with it. With others you need to make sure that you work with other people and give them what you committed to doing. Either way: end up done.
These ideas each can be used by themselves but they work better when you use them together. Put your idea in the middle, and think about how all these principles apply. Use them any aspect of your life, when faced with a challenge, or faced with the opportunity to innovate and create.