The Dialectics of Innovation

 Sergei Eisenstein, frames from  The Potemkin

Sergei Eisenstein, frames from The Potemkin


Originally published in MISC Magazine, 2014



The process of innovation is all about finding new, never-seen-before solutions. Organizations wishing to innovate must, by definition, change their old patterns of thinking and behaving and embrace new, unknown patterns, and they generally have to accomplish this on a schedule. Problem is, ‘eureka!’ moments do not adhere to schedules. In these circumstances, you have to create them.

The challenge with this is that your brain is not set up to pluck new, never-before-seen solutions out of thin air. It’s programmed to see the same thing you have always seen. This is clearly explained inA Primer on the Neurobiology of Inspiration, by Drs Thomas Lewis, Josh Gibson and Richard Lannon. As the doctors explain, “Your ‘implicit’ memory scans the world for recurring regularities and patterns, and it does this without informing the conscious mind about the content of the patterns it finds. Exposure to a specific environment, and the subsequent encoding of implicit knowledge of the regularities within that environment, traps people within the world of the known.”

In other words, as the doctors go on to say, your brain is designed to distort incoming information so that it does not appear new or ambiguous, but instead conforms to the patterns you already know. Of course, this is precisely the world we are trying to escape when we attempt to innovate. So how do we avoid this inevitable trap?

We manufacture inspiration by bringing together two ideas or images from different contexts, and colliding them to discover a third, unforeseen and completely new idea. By themselves, ideas that remain within their native contexts do not inspire new solutions. To illustrate this, imagine you are running a race against five other contestants. Now imagine there are high walls separating each lane so that you are unable to see or hear those contestants. You would run the race without knowing where your competitors were in relation to your position, greatly reducing your chances of finishing first. But without the walls, the game changes. It becomes dynamic and full of new possibilities, unanticipated obstacles and unforeseen outcomes.

Lenin described dialectical development as a process that proceeds not in a straight line, but by way of “breaks in continuity”, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces acting on a given body (or idea or problem). If you can remove this idea from the revolutionary context in which Lenin discusses it, it’s not hard to see that contradiction and conflict may in fact be a necessary ingredient of all truly disruptive innovation. It may not require an armed conflict, but it will require some intentional ‘collisions’ to deliver inspiration. And as the history of dialectics teaches us, that’s something that can be manufactured.

will novosedlik