In praise of contemplation

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While synapses are not commonly associated with computing or with business, metaphorically they may hold the key to understanding how to unlock real business innovation.

Medical science has known of their existence for decades, going well back into the 1800s, and even then referred to them by the name we use today. It wasn’t until Charles Scott Sherrington conducted the research that eventually delivered to him the 1932 Nobel Prize for Physiology that the world came to understand that the electrical impulses occurring when brain synapses (the contact points of neurons) connect with each other is what activates the human body at the cellular level. If you’ve read any scientific literature on the subject you will have learned about the diffusion, the binding, the messaging, the triggering, and the reactions that take place at that moment of connection, moments that form the basis of all the activity we undertake through our lives. The connections are, literally, sparks of life.

Innovation, as a word, is a bit more problematic. It’s grown to become a business cliché and a catch-all for all kinds of activity that in less-breathy times we would have called work. Like a lot of other words that slide easily off the tongue without conscious thought, it’s become enveloped in fog and has lost its edges, its meaning. So let’s start then with a definition.

Innovation is the process of making changes in something established, by introducing new methods, ideas, or products. Take a moment to think of how you may have used the word innovation when you’ve described some aspect of your own work, the processes that you execute, the stuff you produce to collect your salary. Was the activity you called “innovation” really that? Did it improve upon something or was it just a really good execution of something that already existed and that produced a great outcome? If it was the latter, that’s good but it’s not innovation (even if you did it with more enthusiasm than your predecessor). It would be innovative if you created a new way of executing tasks that produced a measureable improvement to the outcome’s speed of delivery, quality (reliability), or utility for the end user.

Having stripped the word innovation back to its essence we can now visualize it in the business world as meaning a process whereby companies create something new and that the market values or, even abstractedly and perhaps without direct attribution, benefits from. The pressure to do this well is increasing each week. Static companies are failing but companies that focus on creating something new that the market needs ward off threats of commoditization (as described in this HBR article about artificial intelligence) and survive for another day.

How to create something new? Obviously you must start with knowing what you do and what you’re good at. Then you examine whether that thing you do has upward resonance in the market. Meaning, sure it had appeal at some point but will it still have appeal going forward? You look at what the market needs and will need. Can you deliver? If not, what will it take to deliver it? Start innovating. Start utilizing all your neurons.

Neurons = your people

Recall that neurons are nerve cells and for our business analogy are represented by a company’s people. The synapse is a contact point on a neuron and it’s that point where an electrical impulse is generated and transmitted to another neuron.

Two of your people communicating about solving the same challenge = a synapse

Your people possess both considerable knowledge of discrete aspects of your processes and an informed, higher view of their purpose and the expected outcomes. There are no better individuals to consult with regarding process improvement than your own people. Why do you think management consulting companies insist on interviewing individual contributors when they begin their massive consulting gigs? They know where to go for the details, for the information that will fuel their own ideas for optimizing your company’s efficiency. But the neurons, your people, cannot do it alone. Here’s what they need.

Customers – By this I mean both future customers and existing ones. In both cases, through their behavior, demonstrations of interest and disinterest, pertinent statements on any channel, buying patterns, all should be viewed as critical data elements about the market’s needs, appetite for solutions, and validation for the very reason you exist as a company. Data collected about them is synonymous with fuel and the customers themselves as neurons.

Peers – their peers are their cohorts, the ones who are invested in the company and its success to a similar degree. They share the ups and downs of the day to day job. Their peers are the ones who’ve already shared complaints they have about processes, disappointing results, poor communication between teams.

Contemplation – the effort made to quietly, and thoroughly, examine a subject. Critically, undisturbed solitary time is required to allow staff members the opportunity to review all aspects of the processes they execute in their role. This should be a recurring activity for them and its output should become a recurring subject of staff meetings throughout the year during which staff members would be asked to deliver a brief of their ideas for revamping, improving, and perhaps even inventing new, processes. A prerequisite though is for staff members to educate themselves about their own company’s products, the company’s challenges, the customer’s business, and the market dynamics that affect the customer. Having the opportunity for uninterrupted thought will create the environment for the human synapses to fire and for them to generate ideas that can be shared with peers (through the business synaptic process, to coin a phrase and as shown below).

In the wheel below are depicted the various elements of innovation. The lightning bolts signify the locations where a synapse exists, where new information is communicated and where it has its moment to flourish or die.

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Without contemplation there can be no foundation for innovation. It is the element most commonly ignored in the business world. Make time for contemplation for it’s how ideas begin. An idea begins in the solitude of one person’s mind, as a spark between neurons. Those synapses will be more plentiful in the solitude that accompanies contemplation.

About Peter Armaly
I get jazzed by automation, big data, and blockchain tech. Business, technology, and fitness are things I understand. Scotch, wine, food, and fiction are things I appreciate.

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