How to Hire, Invest in, or Become a Top Innovator

December 3, 2012
English: Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone...

Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How many times does a hot new product or service come out and you say, “I could have thought of that” or “Why didn’t I think of that?”  Our high value US economy is increasingly dependent on innovation.  When people mention China’s economic rise, we depend on “innovation” as our figurative ‘USA, USA’ chant.  We are high-value, and everyone else is low-value, right?  (Not really, folks) There’s good money where innovation meets market need.  Everyone wants to capitalize on innovation, but in reality, inspiration leads to breakthrough innovation. Ere go, inspiration is the goal.

The Importance of Your Inspiration Quotient

This is a subtle but importance difference that business tomes rarely discuss because people think inspiration just happens to some people, and cannot be produced. I disagree. We all have an inspiration quotient, and in this blog post, I contend that practicing the Arts is the way to capturing inspiration in the art, in life, and in whatever endeavors you undertake.  If you want to hire, invest in or become an inspired innovator, hire, invest in or become a musician, painter, writer, sculptor or dancer.  If you want a company full of innovators, promote art as a central human development priority in your organization. Formalizing the practice of art in order to engender inspired innovation is not covered in your MBA text, and is overlooked in the general business media.  I’ve seen various innovation maps, innovation cycles, and innovation process charts, and none of them mentioned inspiration or the Arts. So, I’m putting it out there for business gurus to analyze, formalize, institutionalize and potentially monetize.  The pathway to inspired innovation is practicing the arts.

You might be thinking, great, another thing to add to my to do list of in order to be a top performer.  As you’ll read later, it’s only as time consuming as you want it to be, but here’s your scientific justification.  I’m a true believer in the line of thinking that one can change one’s success in many areas by disciplining yourself to adopt new habits that are out of your norm in other areas.  Said another way, if you drag your sorry ass out of bed and get yourself to work out early every morning, it will carry through to help you push through that next development cycle or to make the key point that lands a difficult sale. These habits can create actual physiological changes in your brain as well, if you want to get scientific.  Train your mind. So what?  We’ve heard that all before.  I’m busy, where’s the business rationale for art?

Well, the greatest disruptive innovations come from an ethereal asset that comes to us unexpectedly, and by seeming divine providence, known as “inspiration”.  Michelangelo had it. Benjamin Franklin had it.  Alexander G Bell and Marconi had it. Steve Jobs had it. You can’t learn it in business school.  You can’t order it on Amazon. You can’t force your engineers to engender it just because they listen to music or know a programming language.  I contend that great inventors like da Vinci and Steve Jobs achieved their greatness from inspiration, and that inspiration was due in great measure to their passion for practicing various forms of art. Historians might track back recognition of the importance of studying and practicing art to ancient Greece or Mesopotamia.  Inventors of the stature of a Ben Franklin, who began his professional life as a writer and lived his entire life as a satirist, were enormously multi-dimensional. Unfortunately, you can see a declining importance assigned to the Arts today in the tight budgets of US schools. We mistakenly view the study of art as a pathway to an artistic profession, rather than as a pathway to innovation in many professions.  Unlike Mr. Franklin or Michelangelo, we risk becoming a cradle to grave nation of intensely focused specialists on an org chart with an inhibited aptitude for the inter-dimensional imagining that is required for inspired innovation.  It is not critical thinking, it is imagining. Kids are born with a deep desire to make these neural connections, and we formulate that desire away. Think about this when you are discussing Arts budgets on your local PTA.

Inspiration – it’s already inside us all, but we don’t know it yet.  You can’t buy it, put your hands on it, or make use of it when you need to. We Americans hate that, and that’s why you won’t see it on any arrows or circles on mind-bending innovation process maps.  Imagine if an innovation consultant came in to tell your team “Ok, the first step is you want to get your hands on some inspiration.”  Like Peter Senge’s famous work on The Learning Organization, you’d recoil at the idea that everything from there on down would be built on the backs of turtles”.  Managers like to think they can process map everything. So if it’s not on our neat 3D process map, it must be superfluous.  The problem is, inspiration is the most essential element to great innovation.

How You Get Inspiration

People claim inspiration “happens” with meditation. They say it happens when you’re in “the zone” with athletics and with yoga.  Some people advocate mid-day naps. I wish I could nap.  I agree on these various methods, but I believe that the top innovators in history achieved a higher level of awareness needed for extraordinary invention by combining those with practicing art.  In 1998, I told my marketing team at EDS that my best ideas come in a hot shower.  They summarily compared me to Kramer preparing food in the bath. (I used to be pretty sarcastic so this was justified payback.) I recall a few years later seeing a Paul Graham essay saying the same thing about showers. In searching for the link to use prior to publishing this post, it turns out Graham, a painter himself, saw a process corollary between painting and hacking.  In my opinion, it is more ethereal than process similarity, it involves changes to your brain, and goes beyond painting to all of the arts. Process similarities may well help hackers hack, but it’s the act of painting that enables the inspirational ideas that come to Mr. Graham in the shower. Why do Buddhists and native peoples chant?  Isn’t chanting music? I contend on the basis of empirical evidence alone, and no scientific proofs whatsoever, that the practice of art is the pathway to inspiration. It trains and develops neural connections in your brain in different ways, enabling you to imagine new possibilities. How does this translate to the knowledge worker, the assembly line specialist, the fundraiser, or the soldier?

Any entrepreneur, technologist or innovator/inventor has a duty to prioritize the creation of a personal mental/emotional, almost spiritual, state conducive to the capture of innovation when inspiration is trying to make itself known.  If you are the boss of a knowledge worker, or an exec at Ford that expects the guy on the assembly line to keep saving you millions of dollars with new ideas, you need to accept that there is no calculable ROI or timeline for developing inspired innovators. There just is not. Accept it. It’s like working out. The more you stress the muscle the better your results, but you’ll never know the day you’ll actually break through to the next weight or shed those 5 pounds or make that 5 minute mile. However, you “know” and trust that if you stick with it, it will happen eventually.

HR professionals always look for talent, but talent without inspiration is like a racecar on regular unleaded.  You don’t have to hope your next hire will be a genius. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.  What did he mean? Could Einstein’s remarkable innovations in physics have occurred without inspiration? What made him so much better than everyone in history at inspired innovation?  According to a recent ScienceNow article that goes into some detail examining his brain’s physical development, Einstein’s parents had him take piano and violin lessons urging him to be independent and creative in music as well as science.  Is this just another coincidence or are we seeing a pattern? Is it a coincidence that for some unknown reason so many top CEOs are recurrently patrons of the arts? I contend that inspiration is already bottled up inside you, your children and your employees, and practicing art gets it out.

The Practical Application of Arts in the Workplace

So if practicing art is the key to inspiration, how does a typical Manager create the conditions required for inspiration? The same way Managers get anything done – prioritizing the Arts is the only way to get the genie out of the bottle.

Here are top of mind ideas in an Inspiration Bullet List for Managers:

  • Take up an art yourself, and share it with your team and supervisors every week
  • Give everyone on your staff a book of poetry at the next meeting
  • Bring local artists in to discuss their processes and influence Arts adoption
  • Give a guitar as a bonus, or make it a guitar and a set of videos and tell them you want a team blog post on how the lessons went for the next quarter.  (If he talks too much, get him a trumpet instead. Your colleagues will thank you)
  • Provide tickets to the museum and a sketchpad and let someone out early on a Friday to do their thing for presentation Monday morning.
  • If you are in Japan, you know the answer is always karaoke, right?
  • Pay for an employee’s ballroom dance classes
  • Encourage internal social groups around common Art interests (may also aid morale in call centers, for ex.)
  • Incorporate art sessions in your quarterly salesperson meetings (really!)
  • Make it clear to everyone that art is important.

One inspirational thinker can make a huge difference in your company. Don’t expect to get Steve Jobs. You don’t need him.  Imagine having a team full of inspired innovators, or a company full of them. A certain percentage of those would come up with some really great ideas every year and, if you are a progressive employer, you will fund some of these initiatives and create competitive advantages.  Compare this to a company of burnt out automatons that just follow processes and procedures and are stressed to the gills. (Do automatons have gills?)  If this describes your employees, congratulations you have created a company of followers.  So, for those VP’s who scoff at my Inspiration Bullet List for Managers, here’s a news flash: Followers are being rapidly disenfranchised by innovators!!  Unemployment sucks and your job is on the line! Your wife will not be happy. (OK, sorry everyone, the last one was a cheap shot.)

The Stress-Art-Inspiration-Innovation Connection

Speaking of wives, intense emotional stress is the biggest killer of inspiration.  Practicing the Arts can help you manage stress, but only to a point. Managers by their own behavior, policies, and the practical application of those policies can minimize stress or they can create it. In other words, they can foster inspirational breakthrough innovation or they can negate it. Think of it this way.  You’re hiking through Costa Rica singing a happy song and see a line of leaf cutter ants. They travel single file carrying leaves thrice their size crossing the jungle floor overcoming huge obstacles in their path, working together, communicating who knows how.  Pondering that, you might come up with a revolutionary packaging and delivery system, or the next gyroscope enabled transporter mechanism, or a needed solution to your colleague’s ad hoc networking problem. That’s inspiration.  But inspiration and its more famous brother innovation won’t happen if you’re being chased through that Costa Rican jungle by an ill-tempered leopard. One Manager can kill a valuable ten-year revenue stream, and no one will know. If it is not in the Manager’s performance review, it doesn’t count for shit. Developing an innovation climate must be prioritized or you are incentivizing the Manager to keep the pressure on until he, his team, and then you get canned. Your company will be an also ran, and never be on the leading edge of anything good for very long.

Think about smartphone companies like RIM, Nokia and Motorola.  At one time, these were all leaders in advanced mobile technology. Now imagine the pressure cooker their engineers may be working in so that they can retain their jobs, and regain their market predominance and value.  To me, this high-pressure climate is anathema to inspiration.  Creating innovation in this climate will result in incremental improvement and not game changing products. To come up with inspired innovation, they’d be better off segregating a group of the most out of the box thinkers and sending them on a one month sabbatical where they exercise, eat and sleep well, and practice art. (Oh, and hot showers too.) You’ll need to manage the politics in choosing people by keeping it quiet prior to selection.  Inform them that this is viewed as an experiment and there is no expectation that they will produce something of value in 30 days. Tell them they are prohibited from discussing the product for the first 3 weeks. The ideas are better percolating inside each of their minds, and in the last week they can come together to brainstorm.  They need to agree to keep practicing some art when they get back. Even if it comes to nothing, when they return to work they’ll be refreshed and more productive.

The stress-art-inspiration-innovation connection I have described is what we used to derisively call in grad school, ”touchy feely”.  If you can’t show me an ROI, you can’t justify putting art on a performance review.  I used to buy into that.  Have I lost my mind?  YES, but that’s beside the point.  Things have changed, innovation used to happen slower than ketchup out of a bottle, but now innovation happens by the second. Here’s a quote from an innovative guy who might have agreed with me, (or maybe, more accurately, I agree with him) although genius in one realm often creates limitations in other areas.

“The older I get, the more I see how much motivations matter. The Zune was crappy because the people at Microsoft don’t really love music or art the way we do. We won because we personally love music.” ― Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs

Outside of using narcotics, which has led to mind-expanding creative masterpieces but has very negative consequences and diminishing returns, reasonable stress levels can only be internally overcome by stretching yourself in athletics if your body allows, or by making a habit of doing something inventive and out of your norm that involves your senses in new ways like practicing the arts.  I’ll need a scientist to measure what happens to performance by combining athletics and art, but anecdotally I’d say you increase your inspiration quotient tremendously. When you bounce a baby on your knee and make sounds or act out, sing to them or help them dance, that’s stress relief and that’s a form of art. Listening to music engages you, but making music betters you.  Reading a book interests you, but writing a book fully involves you in making every word improve the entirety of the work.  Watching a movie may be 3D, but directing a short film is 4D. Watching Dancing with the Stars, like all the others, makes you a spectator.  To actually spin around, trip and step on people’s feet, that’s art. (In Boston, we call it Ahht.) Regardless of ability, you just have to do it.  Ringo’s latest tweet on August 29, 2012 stated,

“I never studied anything, really.  I didn’t study the drums. I joined bands and made all the mistakes onstage.” – @RingoStarrMusic

No one thinks they can be the next Steve Jobs. They can’t. Why not? Even If you had the talent, the inspiration and the opportunity, you’d never have the drive to reach your potential if you had already convinced yourself that there’s no way you could ever do so.  People will fight to stay in the safety of their cocoons. Take it from Ringo, you don’t need to be good at art, you just need to try, enjoy the trying and put it out there. Think of producing your art in terms of introducing the minimal viable product as described by Eric Ries and Stave Blank.  Make it a priority to keep sending it out there, along with healthy eating, exercise, etc.

Some people will never break through the inspiration wall. Life has not dealt them either the capacity to sit still and think about nothing (as in meditation), or the freedom from life’s extreme stresses for a walk, even for a few minutes a day, as required to exercise the inspiration muscle.  These are the people that should think most about practicing some form(s) of art and forcefully adapting it into their week because they should not completely ignore their humanity. (Any wonder why they call art ‘The Humanities’?) For instance, if you sit on the bus or subway everyday, bring a sketchpad or tablet and start drawing – it’s that easy.  Relax, you don’t have to be good, you don’t have to be efficient, effective, or produce results.  It’s in the doing that you allow the inspiration to take over.  This is arguably more important to your jobs than those dozens of daily news emails that will be forgotten tomorrow.  It will refresh your morning work re-entry by reducing stress and open the window to inspiration. If you can give away the sketches, make a friend and do so right there, when you reach the station every day. Frame them, sell them, or post them to a blog.  You need the reward of sharing to motivate you to make a habit out of something that can be thought of by many as a time waster.

Soundcloud posts testimonials from its artists on its Soundcloud tour page. There you’ll see comments like “responses to my work have been so encouraging I honestly believe it has directly impacted my productivity.” Sharing produces a self-reinforcing link. You take showers, right?  Sing in the shower every day, and sing it loud. Critics will come, and others will appreciate at least the effort, and that’s life. One day when you get off that train and get to your desk, you’ll capture a eureka moment that your colleagues will regard as genius. You can’t have genius without inspiration. Someone like JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, was able to use her stress as a motivator.  She used art as an escape from the stress of being a single Mom and allowed it to drive her into a deep part of her mind, harvesting a brilliant talent. She practiced her art on the train every day for years, and allowed the inspiration to flow.  She’s worth a billion dollars now.  How big is your company? What’s your net worth?

Take a Chance

To become better innovators, people need to take chances with their creativity. As an amateur poet, I can claim that no one gets poetry wrong if they take the time to capture fleeting inspirational moments and develop those thoughts into something you feel transmits a work of value that people might appreciate – and then share them.  Remember how difficult it used to be to distribute music, or publish literature or film globally. How relatively easy and inexpensive is it now? It’s easy to take that for granted. Think about my namesake musician, Rodriguez, whose music captured an entire country and he didn’t even know about it.  Apparently when a tree falls in the woods, and you think no one is there to hear it, it does still makes a noise.  Who would have heard of a South Korean singer, songwriter, dancer, producer named Psy without YouTube? I have a good friend who lives in Florence. Throughout Florence, in the many piazzas and museums you see people of all ages sketching and painting. Have you heard of any of them? The answer is no.  Do you think they care that you don’t know them?  The answer is no. It is internally rewarding.

Practicing art starts with stress relief, travels through inspiration and ends in innovation. So, I suggest you take a chance and take some time every week to create art whether it is photography, songwriting, sculpture, finger painting, singing, writing, whatever.  If you are in the start-up world, or at all responsible for innovation in your job, then practicing art will not only be internally rewarding but will reward your customers, your team, and your investors. If you’re concerned about any snide remarks you might get from your colleagues, a part of me really doesn’t want to eat my own dog food either, but I’ll do it anyways.

People get caught up in the day-to-day and don’t realize the human need to express greater feelings than net present value, business models and distinctive competitive advantage. Beyond convenience, I’ve now articulated the essential human and business reasons to practice art. If you take some time out of your day to think about how you can make a habit of stretching your humanity beyond your main profession every week, you will find it fulfilling and worthwhile.  Keep asking yourself if your inspiration quotient is increasing or decreasing.  Don’t you want to be the one who comes up with that hot new offering? Like the Nike slogan says… well, you know their slogan.

For the clever execs who think that they can just bypass this and buy innovation by acquiring innovative companies, yes but for various reasons, the advantage horizon you used to enjoy through that strategy is steadily approaching zero.  By now there should be enough research on what happens to innovation when it is bought and controlled by non-innovators, but I may cover it in a future post. Regardless, Mr./Ms. CEO, what’s really stopping you personally from taking up an art?

So there you have it, Practice Art. My proof comes from Socrates to Michelangelo to Ben Franklin to Einstein to Steve Jobs to Rodriguez to Paul Graham to JK Rowling to Ringo Starr.  I know them all and we hang out discussing this all the time (well, except the ones who are still around to deny it).  So if you want to disregard the experience of some of the most inspired inventors of all time to listen to your old-world Manager, have at it. In my opinion, practicing art changes people, and that means you. If you need more justification, I’ll leave you with one more quote from the immortal Steve Jobs, and then a larger last thought.

“If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away. The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say, “Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.” And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently. (Steve Jobs)” ― Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs

Solving World Problems Requires Inspiration

The answer to all world problems that will manifest themselves in grave ways in coming generations can be summed up in one word: Innovation.  You, your sons and daughters can only solve these demanding world problems through inspiration.  If you are living on this planet, increasingly and in more ways than one, you’ll like it better if you, your family and friends practice the Arts.

Post Script:

I read a lot of business periodicals but can’t recall ever coming across this formal correlation between practicing art and high performing innovators. (The web being what it is, I’d be surprised if no one is looking into this.) If I were in the art world, I’d be having some sleepless nights right about now thinking about cutbacks in government funding.  The promotion of practicing art as a means to foster inspired innovation can be a new opportunity for them. If intelligent people take up the cause and make a good case, I think there’s an opportunity to enroll visionary corporate leaders, who may themselves be art aficionados, in pilot programs within their companies. Eventually these executives might help promote the practice of art as an important corporate budget line item, at least for functions with high creativity or cost saving expectations. Hopefully, these endorsements would trickle down to a new perspective on grade school budgets. Moreover, clinicians studying the effects of meditation on performance should also consider looking to the next level and think about measuring artists’ correlation to inspiration and innovation. I suggest using control groups and test cases, and scientifically seeking ways to shrink the result horizon.

Author’s note:

I’d like to thank Jason Fried @JasonFried for his recent tweet referring to the ScienceNow article on Einstein’s brain which was coincidentally timely for me as I was writing this post.

There is a recent HBR piece entitled The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals that I recommend as a follow up to this blog post. You can find it at .

On how taking a break from decisions results in better decisions: