The three phases of innovation: information, imagination and implementation

| December 9, 2015

Is the agenda released by Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne this Monday enough to boost innovation in Australia? Graham Thorburn says to become truly innovative we first need to examine who we are with self-knowledge and honesty.

Last week I argued that changing a few inputs and adjusting a few settings wouldn’t be sufficient to genuinely create innovation. On Monday the government announced $1 billion worth of changed inputs and adjusted settings.

It was welcomed with open arms. And it’s probably a good thing. But will it be sufficient?

Inputs and settings can be changed with the stroke of a pen, but culture runs deep and slow. If we are to become a genuinely innovative nation we will have to take into account who we actually are; not who we would like to be, or who we are comparing ourselves to. We have to be innovative about how to be innovative, taking our culture into account. And this is not just about the creative part of innovation. It’s also about self-knowledge and honesty.

Creativity is embedded in innovation, but it’s not all there is to innovation. While it can be sufficient for creativity to be unique, fascinating and novel, innovation needs to create a paradigm shift – to be extendable, transformable, transferable and reproducible. There are at least three separate phases to innovation: information, imagination and implementation. (Doesn’t alliteration make everything seem more profound?)

Each of these phases has their own challenges. Information is not just cyclotrons and surveys. Some of the most innovative changes in the last quarter century sprung up from simply observing and understanding human desire – knowing what you and the people around you actually want. Australian intellectual culture, torn between who we are and how we would like to be seen, finds doing this honestly very difficult.

Imagination – the overtly creative phase – is even more threatening to the group, because it is so individual. Everything about the process of creation can be collaborative except the actual moment of creative insight. That’s always individual, and mysterious. It can be fed by the group, but it can’t be forced. It arrives mysteriously, and can vanish in an instant. It’s a gift to the conscious mind from unconscious mind, but you can’t know what it is until you’ve unpacked it, and even then it’s not always clear how it works.

Some individuals just bubble creative ideas. For the rest of us, it’s more akin to problem-solving; an iterative process that moves between conscious logic and unconscious discovery. We use our conscious logic to define the problem; and then we allow our unconscious to discover solutions (as long as we can persuade our conscious logic to step back and wait. Our logical mind can always find lots of reasons to step in and take over – budget, schedule, other people’s expectations….)

Then our conscious logic looks at those solutions and measures them. This enables our conscious mind to either accept one of the solutions, or to redefine the problem: either incrementally – I failed to take into account ZZZ, therefore I need to modify the problem to take that into account; or completely – actually the problem isn’t XXX, it’s YYY.

For example, if the problem is traffic in the city, then an incremental modification might be taking into account trucks making deliveries, whereas a major modification might be deciding that the problem isn’t traffic, but office hours.

Then, once the problem has been redefined, it gets sent back to the unconscious for solutions – and so on.

Can the same process apply to groups? Can we find institutional analogies for the interplay between the conscious logical mind and the unconscious ‘creative’ mind, in a society where logic and creativity are often seen as adversarial rather than complementary, and are often put in terms of real life discipline versus airy fairy freedom?

In my experience, as soon as you separate these necessary phases of the creative process into separate people or separate groups of people, it quickly turns into an ‘us and them’ struggle, where the real power lies in the ability to say no, and in which creativity is almost always the loser. And this can cut both ways – in an institution almost anybody can find ways to block anything that threatens their comfort and power.

This is the question that every film set faces, and I suspect every institution struggles with. Are clear and strong hierarchies necessary for creativity, or deadly for it?

What do you think?



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    December 15, 2015 at 10:20 pm

    More than 200 reads, Graham. Politicians dream of such data. But, as the saying goes, data isn’t information; information isn’t knowledge and knowledge isn’t wisdom. I venture to think that you’ll be a wiser but not a sadder man when you rise the morrow morn.