All the tools of innovation that I have come across involve taking massive action in designing and implementing innovations. They involve working your creative muscles, connecting the dots, and getting things done. But what if I told you that innovation is possible by doing exactly the opposite. What if I told you that you can innovate without trying so hard? What if you can do it without trying at all?
The Surrender Experiment
I read The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer over the weekend. Since I had read other books by Singer, I was curious to know more about him through his memoir. It is a fabulous book and teaches innovators a powerful lesson. It reminded me that innovation is also possible in an effortless manner, by not trying so hard.
Michael shares his spiritual journey from the time of his doctoral education days. During his graduate work, he experiences profound and life-changing spiritual events. He realizes the power of meditation and he observes that his mind is always at work. It is commenting, expecting, predicting and evaluating all that was happening around him. He realizes that his mind is the source of a lot of internal resistance. As a result, he decides not to allow this inner mind to dictate his actions. He allows life to guide him and just stay with his meditations. He called this the surrender experiment. The book is about his experiences that arise from this decision.
One would think Michael was Forrest Gump on steroids after reading this book. He makes little effort and allows the intelligence of the universe to guide him. He goes from being a pot smoking hippy to a CEO of a billion dollar corporation.
The reader is surprised how effortless his success is. Since Michael is homeless, he buys some land from the money his father had given him for graduate school. His friends help him build a home where he can meditate. This leads to others joining him and it becomes a mediation hall for many. To accommodate an increasing size of the meditation community, he builds more living space. When the local sheriff notices these buildings he asks Michael to build for him too. This begins a lucrative construction business for Michael.
One day when shopping in Radio Shack for his business, he comes across the first computer. He is curious and delves into programming. He soon becomes an expert in coding and his software business takes off. As this business grows, he becomes the CEO of a very large company. During this entire journey, through all the ups and downs, he remains a detached yogi. This leads to significant spiritual growth for him.
This book reminded me that although I spend a lot of time building tools to help innovators, there is one tool that requires no work. In fact, it reminded me that I have myself experienced times when a fully formed idea arose in my mind effortlessly.
When I was working on The Dark Side of Innovation, I had many unanswered questions. One of them was why do firms not respond to innovations in an appropriate manner. I had done years of research but didn’t have an overarching framework. One day, I articulated this question and went for a long run. I didn’t have a goal to have the answer that day or within a certain time. During the run, the answer came to me. I got back and started taking notes as fast as I could. The idea was a synthesis of everything I had read for years. The more I wrote, the more details emerged. It turned into a conference paper.
I recall another similar experience. I often meet with practitioners to discuss ideas on innovation. In one such meeting, I had invited two management consultants to my office in Babson College for a freewheeling discussion. We asked one another several questions and had discussions around the topic. At a point, I was answering a question and scribbling on a white board it happened again. I had an explanation for why companies waste most of their innovation dollars. Although I had researched the subject for years, I had not consciously asked this question. This led me to a research project that was funded by the Swiss Government. It led me to speak with over 100 senior managers across Europe and the US for this research.
In both the cases, I wasn’t consciously trying to come up with an idea. I was immersed in something else and thus unaware of myself when these ideas came to me.
The Genesis of Ideas
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Creativity, explains this phenomenon in his book. He says that one absorbs extensive amounts of information and these data points are initially unconnected. While you are unaware and focused elsewhere, these ideas connect together in your mind. Eventually, they coalesce and turn into an insight. At a time when you are not trying to find the answers, the eureka moment arises.
Michael’s story was somewhat different. It was akin to him accessing the universal intelligence and letting it guide him. Michael experiences synchronicity that had nothing to do with what he had thought before.
I think the truth may lie between what Mihaly found in his research and what Michael experienced in his surrender experiment.
A learning for Innovators
The key learning for an innovator is that being open to getting the answer without trying too hard is also a tool. It may be one of the most underused tools in the management business. Given the pressures of the corporate world, this tool may not even be valued.
However, it may be worthwhile considering it. You may want to use it at some point. This may be ideally done on a personal pet project where the deadline doesn’t exist. This may be the surrender experiment for the innovator.
Have you tried this? What was your experience?