Innovation Haiku: How to Stimulate Inventive Thinking

A creativity exercise to help distill your idea down to its essence.

Posted Mar 02, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

I like to design engaging brain games that help stimulate divergent thinking and creative collaboration. One of my favorite exercises is the innovation haiku. It’s not only a useful skill for stimulating inventive thinking, but it’s also useful for explaining the benefit of your idea. It reduces the concept to its essence.

First, let’s talk about the 5-7-5 syllables rule that’s taught in schools. It’s bogus. It turns out that the Japanese use “sounds” instead of syllables. The linguistic term is mora—Japanese is what’s known as a moraic language, not a syllabic one. For example, the word “haiku” itself counts as two syllables in English (hi-ku), but three mora in Japanese (ha-i-ku). This isn’t how “haiku” is said in Japanese, but it is how its sounds are counted. As a result, a Japanese haiku with 17 mora has much less “content” than an American haiku with 17 syllables.

As a result, many haiku poets in North America write haiku with fewer syllables, usually following a shorter 3-5-3 syllable convention. However, there are those who write completely without a rigid structure. This style is called “free-form” haiku. But in many ways, it better captures the spirit of Japanese haiku. For example, this is a transliteration of the most famous Japanese haiku, written by Bashô in 1686:

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

And here is the transliteration and [explanation]:

          furuike   old + pond [Bashô invented this combined word form]

                 ya   [grammatical separator, similar to ellipsis but vocalized]

         kawazu   frog [this is a literary term, not the common word, for “frog”]

      tobikomu   leaps/jumps + enters [“leaps in(to)” or “jumps in(to)”]

             mizu   water

                 no   [grammatical possessive]

                oto   sound

And here is how it’s usually translated into English:

old pond...

frog leaps into

water’s sound

The ellipsis (three spaced periods) in English represents the sense of the ya. However, what I prefer is to use a condensed one-line format – as Japanese haiku are expressed in a single vertical column without punctuation – and I use vertical bars instead of ellipses to capture the essence of the ya:

old pond  |  frog leaps | into the sound of water

The point is that this classic haiku clearly doesn’t fit the 5-7-5 pattern, right? In fact, the great poet Gary Snyder said, “I don’t think counting 5,7,5 syllables is necessary or desirable. To reflect the natural world, and the season, is to reflect what is. The key aesthetic requirement of a top-quality haiku is freedom from ego.”

One more point: About the “season.” Classical haiku invokes the time of year with a word that is typical of that season, such as snow for winter, or frog for spring, as in the example above. This is known as a “season word,” which called a jiko in Japanese. In Japan, lists of jiko have been collected into encyclopedic reference works called saijiki, which include explanations and sample poems. Saijiki are also available as mobile apps in Japan, so haiku poets over there can consult a saijiki to prime the poetic pump, or see if they’ve used a term correctly. But for once, in the U.S. app store, there’s no app for that.

Finally, I wanted to share that the very first haiku I ever wrote, which was for my 9th-grade English teacher. After she explained the 5-7-5 structure, she gave us a quiz and had us write a haiku. This immediately came to me:

haiku is simple

the first two lines are easy

on the last, I f**k up

I got an F, but at that exact moment, I knew this would be seared into my memory and I knew in my heart that I would write poetry for the rest of my life. This is because poetry and innovation are about breaking the rules. Having rules for haiku sort of defeats its own purpose.

Now that you’ve read this, come up with a haiku that describes your innovation, but one that literally springs from your being. You can use 5-7-5, or 3-5-3, or just freestyle. But try to start with a kind of season word that reflects the nature of your idea. And then send it to me and I'll post a number of the best haiku contributed.

Guy Kawasaki has long suggested that great mission statements are three words long – what he calls a business mantra. The goal is to help employees clarify what the organization offers. Some examples:

  • Federal Express: “Peace of mind”
  • Nike: “Authentic athletic performance”
  • Mary Kay “Enriching women’s lives”

This is a similar process, as the haiku structure guides the mind to distill things down to their core essence; it helps to concentrate the value proposition. But instead of a mantra, it produces something of beauty. The haiku should not feel like business as usual – it should help you to understand the meaning of your organization and product – why the product deserves to exist, how it is beautiful, where it fits into nature and the world.

For example, my latest product is a technology to help societies better manage pandemics, and here’s a haiku I came up to describe it:

My little app | fights vaccine hesitancy | for a better world

One final suggestion – write just one haiku. Japanese samurai and Zen masters have a tradition of writing a death poem, to celebrate their lives. This is like that, except that it celebrates a birth rather than a death. Forcing yourself to write only a single haiku will better capture the poignance and beauty of your invention.

PS: Here’s a little haiku I just came up with to describe the feeling of inventing something:

an idea sprouts | brain endorphins flow | now I see