Teaching Innovation as a Martial Art

Is innovation really something you can teach? Absolutely!

Posted Nov 27, 2009

Someone recently asked me... is innovation really something you can teach? My answer... of course it is! I teach an innovation workshop for middle and executive level managers at Fortune 500 companies, and all you have to do is watch the faces of my students to know that innovation is absolutely teachable.

However, teaching innovation isn't really like teaching anything else. There's really no set textbook or curriculum, and there's no established and recommended pedagogical method. This is because the core of innovation is really a dynamic way of thinking, rather than a static body of knowledge. The best example of a teacher teaching a way of thinking, from my personal experience, was the physicist Richard Feynman.

When I was a freshman at Caltech, I sat in Feynman's now famous Physics X lectures for freshmen majoring in physics. I can remember sitting there in absolute wonder, watching the Nobel Laureate magically derive Maxwell's equations from nothing more than the uniformity of time and space... and thinking, "man, this must be what it felt like to watch Aristotle or Socrates teach." You see, Feynman didn't teach from a textbook or a lesson plan, and he didn't teach formulas or techniques for solving equations. Instead, deep inside of his physics lectures, he was actually was teaching a philosophy of life. Feynman exuded a genuine excitement and a relentless curiosity not only about how the world works, but why it is as amazingly beautiful as it is.

In fact, he once said, "Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it... science only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of it." When you learned to see the world the way he did, you immediately began to learn a new way of thinking about it.

Innovation is actually taught in the same way. Socrates insisted that the greatest teachers were not those who had the most information (i.e, the "experts"), but those who created the "space of learning". Those who teach innovation must do the same thing - they can't only teach about the nuts and bolts of coming up with ideas and sheparding them through the organization, they need to teach a new way of seeing and listening and thinking.

The best analogy for teaching innovation, I believe, is the teaching of martial arts - both disciplines require years of study and diligent effort to master, both disciplines require that you continuously test what you're learning in the ring and adapt your theories to fit reality, and finally, in both disciplines, your sensei needs to be pretty good at it to get you started in the right direction.

One of the most innovative martial artists was Bruce Lee, who wrote a book called The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. This book is exceptional in that it was not a "how to" manual for learning some form or kata, but rather, it was a distillation of his remarkable philosophy of martials arts. Essentially, the art of Jeet Kune Do is to let go of form, to allow the student to become formless and dynamic in every way - but fully grounded in what really works. Bruce Less said, "If you follow the classical patterns, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow. You are not understanding yourself."

In the same way, the teaching of innovation must, at some point, let go of all the textbooks and techniques and allow the student to achieve formlessness in the same way. This is the highest level of innovation training, obviously. However, in the martial arts, before you can even allow yourself to imagine what it might be like to be a formless Zen-master samurai, you have to put in some long and painful hours doing basic exercises. Any human skill - like learning to play the piano or speak a new language - requires 5000 hours for the human brain to master. Both martial arts and ideation - the skill of creating ideas - are no different. There are no shortcuts.

Does this mean everyone can learn how to become an Einstein or Edison? Of course not. Some students will always demonstrate a natural born genius that others can never match. For example, one story about Bruce Lee's natural genuis for martial arts comes from Danny Lee, his "#3" student. (I studied under Danny, who also happens to have a Ph.D. in physics.) Danny tells this story that his secret weapon was an "inside hook kick", that  he developed by studying tai chi ch'uan. During a sparring match, Danny unleashed it and Bruce shouted, "Wow! What's that?" He asked Danny to demonstrate it to him a few times. One week later, Bruce said, "Hey Danny, check  this out." In one week, Bruce had developed a better inside hook kick than Danny had crafted over the course of ten years of intensive practice.

However, in my experience teaching innovation, most people simply are not living  up to their full innovative potential - but it's not because of their inherent nature, but rather, due to a fundamental fear of failure. In my workshop on innovation - which is a basic program that covers fundamental concepts, design ethnography and needsfinding, techniques for visual thinking and strategic problem-solving, innovation pipeline and portfolio management - my favorite teaching slide/image is to the left. I consistently find that 90% of the class immediately sees the word "flop".

However, all I have to do is point  out that if you look more carefully, you can see the word "flip". The meaning is obvious: we are all pre-disposed toward a fear of failure, which serves as a primal inhibitor that keeps all of us from being fully innovative. For this reason, I expanded our innovation workshop to include motivational exercises, like firewalking, glass walking, arrow and board breaking. Doing such exercises first, to break through deeply buried fear, can significantly accelerate the process of shifting the mindset toward success and innovation. Once you can perform the impossible, then anything becomes possible.

Another similarity between martial arts and innovation has to do with the linkage between theory and execution. In both, you must be able to think and plan strategically and creatively... but in the final analysis, if you're poor at execution or if you can't 'bring it' in the ring, the system or invention will not succeed. Therefore, the teaching of innovation has to include a self-contained process for continuously improving execution as well as ideation. In other words, you have to continuously test what you're learning in the ring to see if it works, and adapt and improve your theories constantly to reflect what really works, what really counts, what really matters. This is why the most common definition of innovation is "creativity + execution for business".

At the bottom line, perhaps the most important similarity between the martial arts and innovation is the spirit of the sensei. If your innovation coach is actually pretty lousy at innovation and is basically a political creature - what I call "the guys who put the ‘no' in innovation" - you simply won't be able to go very far as a true innovator under their tutelage. The ideal innovation guru has to be 50% innovation and 50% guru - someone who, as the great samurai Miyamoto Musashi wrote, "truly understands the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest things and the deepest things. From one thing, he can know ten thousand things. When you attain the Way of [Innovation] there will not be one thing you cannot see."

Thus, the ideal teacher of innovation is someone who understands that the achievement of an innovative culture is actually a transformational experience - it is the process of rewriting the fundamental DNA of the organization. It starts with the ability to transcend limiting belief systems within the organization, and requires the command of empowering focus and execution - to unleash the team towards the collective vision. Successfully implemented, innovation training results in an expansion of personal creative potential, a rediscovery of one's innate curiosity and joy in discovery, and finally, the development of a set of practical ideation skills suitable for any challenge.

So, is innovation something you can teach?

Yes, absolutely... but it's like a finger pointing to the moon.