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Does disciplined innovation really create the big new idea? Do we need to allow for more “random creativity?”

There was a recent article in the Science and Technology section of The Economist called “The Skeleton of Water.”  The main subject was an update of how “the hidden structure within liquids and gases” influences such things as airplane trajectories and the migrations of jellyfish.

Called Lagrangian structures, these invisible “skeletons” are named after an 18th-century pioneer in the research of moving fluids, Joseph-Louis Lagrange.  It is interesting to note that Lagrange’s ability to study this phenomenon was stymied by the lack of computational tools,such as the computer. Modern day scientists, armed with supercomputers, are continuing Lagrange’s interrupted work and have determined that both the oceans and the atmosphere are dominated by these structures.

What caught my eye in this article, however, was not the specific information about the invisible skeletons, but by a comment of the author that chaos theory is “an explanation in search of a problem.” This note immediately made me think about the impetus for innovation.

In the tidal wave of innovation processes that have been developed and embraced by so many industries, much has been said and even dictated about customer-driven innovation. In the glory days of the 90s, many chemists, engineers, developers, designers had the luxury of spending some of their “day job” time to doodle on their pet projects or ideas.

This is likely not happening as much these days – with constrainted budgets,lean staffing and the like, it’s hard to justify working on dreamy stuff that the customer doesn’t clearly need or desire.

While I’m sure there are many bright ideas that pop up daily and are warmly received because they serendipitously link to some known customer need or desire, I suspect that there are many more unborn ideas that will never see the light of day because we may not be inviting random creativity in organizations.

There are signs that the U.S. is slipping in its innovation leadership – a recent case in point is China’s leadership in new patents. I am well aware of how tricky it is to manage creativity in an organization – the pitfalls are many: risks, rewards, recognition, ownership, authority, responsibility, funding and other resources and more. But clearly the risk of ignoring, stifling or undervaluing pure creativity is much more dangerous. I think I’d take tricky over dangerous.

You might say that organized and predictable innovation can be the foundation of a good game with lots of home runs.  But, how often are you really hitting them out of the park?

A couple more notes on the invisible skeletons… Langrangian structures essentially create “borders” between bodies of fluid or air. Understanding how the structures collide in updrafts and downdrafts will likely help aircraft land more safely in turbulence. But I wonder what kind of invisible structure exists within socities or organizational cultures that might create resistance to change or to different thinking. Perhaps it’s Langrangian in nature?

Listen to this podcast to find out what roles curiosity and humility play in innovation.