The Babylonians first identified the world’s elements as earth, water, air, and fire. From there, other civilizations added to maps of properties — each deemed to be a mix of sharp, subtle, blunt, dense, mobile, or immobile. Then measures of combustion, volatility, and stability were introduced, conclusions and creations born of observation and experimentation. This is the art of alchemy, a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination. Though alchemy played a significant role in the development of early modern science, it differs significantly in its inclusion of the intangible.
When it comes to innovation — that apparent end-game to change the status quo — there’s no roadmap, though consultants often claim there is by putting the words ‘innovation’ and ‘strategy’ together. Innovation is triggered by conditions that do not follow a precise formula. It’s alchemy. It’s what happens when you bring the right people together, empower them to be as creative as possible, frame the right questions, teach them how to look at problems from different angles, and then experiment with an open mind.
Think of culinary masters such as Jiro Ono, as featured in the fascinating documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi — everyone is trying to reach the top, he says. Except nobody knows where the top is.
Not knowing where the top is, however, doesn’t mean our efforts are aimless. Innovation alchemy is a practice of mastery, and there’s a discipline to orchestrating positive change without a roadmap. After numerous trials and errors, I’ve arrived at a few guiding principles:
Design conditions, not recipes
Some never stray from a recipe, while others add a fistful-of-this, a dollop-of-that. It may never be the same dish twice, but if the latter cook has an excellent grasp of the properties of the ingredients — flavor, texture, scent — the result will be delicious despite being unexpected.
With the right group, even the predictable part of bringing people together becomes just as unpredictable. By setting up the conversation that welcomes innovation’s necessary uncertainty, we discover new sparks. With intention, we consider the balance between the environment, the participants, the catalyst, and the appetite to seek and experience the unknown. There is no strategic blueprint or roadmap, unless we count the process behind hosting the conversation.
It’s about having an eye for the right people, setting the stage, and having faith that most of the time, all the best revelations and adventures lie in what is unknown.
Understand the power of space
Our generation finally graduated from factories and their conformity-minded workspaces. During the tech boom, innovative companies redesigned office environments to be playgrounds. Foosball tournaments and ping pong tables were first attempts at breaking out of cubicles, but all they did was replace one formula for another. We’ve never been so connected, or at least we think we’ve never been by virtue of the internet and social media — but are we, really? As individuals and as a collective, how can we shape our experiences by understanding the power of the space we occupy?
In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson insists that it’s not that the individuals who comprise a network are smart, but that it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.
“The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts,” says Johnson. “…frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.”
A tangled bank is the epitome — it’s a lot more sophisticated than Let’s have a ping pong table. Consider seeking a space that supports not only openness, but rituals. The idea here is to put ourselves in the right place, whether it's a controlled environment we create or a destination that requires a pilgrimage. It may include the encouragement of walking, writing, sketching, daydreaming, listening, debating, and mistake-making. Seek a space that — in addition to accommodating the quirks of extroverts, introverts, and all manner of reporting structures — welcomes digressions.
Choose the right people
When I have a new idea, I don’t begin working on it until I surround myself with people I respect. Then, I make sure they know that the journey we are about to embark on will take us somewhere unpredictable and possibly uncomfortable. After I earn their trust, the real conversations begin.
We aspire to go deeper than the idea itself or even the solutions it might lead to. We spend more time talking about passions, conflicts, secrets and doubts. Together, we pay attention to overlooked details and help each other discover our hidden fears and true intentions. We build on each other’s creative potential to generate a bright light, a powerful beam to penetrate the dark cloud that often blocks a clear path towards a better future. When we see that light, it’s no longer about the idea, but the new possibilities opened up by those at the table.
This is an exercise that can only be done with the right people — those who focus on the essential rather than the superficial. Pure elements create powerful compounds; fresh ingredients make amazing dishes. With high calibre individuals, the collective will reach a greater depth more quickly.
In his Harvard Business Review article Facilitating serendipity with peel-and-eat shrimp, Grant McCracken tells the story of a social chemistry experiment called Wok+Wine. He relays the story of founder Peter Mandeno, who wanted to see what would happen if he brought together people with diverse perspectives and interests. What would happen, he wondered, if you put a VC, a material scientist, a fashion designer, a teacher, and an author at the same table?
“As soon as the shrimp are out on the table, the energy in the room changes,” says Mandeno. “Something about eating with your hands, sharing food with strangers, and the awkwardness of getting the head and shell off a jumbo shrimp made it possible for people to open up. To connect easily and authentically, to forget the bravado they had brought into the room, and instead just behave as themselves.”
For me, Mandeno’s stroke of genius is not the design of the events, but the desire to actively seek surprises. Wok+Wine is a good example of using a simple device to break social repetition and generate new patterns. When people are forced out of the rule-book into improv, there is always unexpected value to cultivate. Serendipity is something to treasure, because it cannot be planned.
Insist on diversity
Diverse teams produce more creative results than teams in which all members are from a similar background. In Innovation Management’s article Why diversity is the mother of creativity, Jeffrey Baumgartner cited tests that have shown that people who live abroad — not just travel, but who have moved — have sharper creative wits. The stimulation and unfamiliar setting of a new culture and constantly adapting to new ways of living is, it would seem, a creative turbo-charge.
When our brains seek a solution to a problem, our dutiful meaty computer pulls up the already-stored to relate to the problem. By discovering new things, we break free of our own formulas. “If you want to get creative,” says Baumgartner, “…you need to diversify your thinking and encourage your mind to look for information associated with other concepts.”
The human brain is a chemical wonder. Despite all our advances, we still don’t entirely understand how it works. But we do know that when someone says something that shocks us, that shock triggers a reaction. Diversity forces that chemical spark. It’s often uncomfortable — many times, I’ve had a passionate argument or frustrating debate with someone. I may go home feeling really unsettled, but after a shower, a rest, or simply the turning of a new day, I almost always come around to an altered viewpoint that’s ultimately positive. Singular voices cripple, and it’s a fallacy to think that the answer lies in confirming what’s already in our head.
These principles are gathered with the deep belief that innovation is part science, part magic. So, as in alchemy, when we are stumped, we return to the humble practice of studying properties. Like the Babylonians, we might amend our descriptors. We witness dead-ends and false starts as curiosities, and change course to see where else we might end up. By continuing to be attentive, we continue to learn. And as Eric Hoffer so brilliantly put — that’s when we inherit a truly improved earth.
Sharon Chang is a designer, media executive, social entrepreneur, impact investor, and philanthropist. Prior to founding Yoxi, she was the Chief Creative Officer of 19 Entertainment, the company behind popular TV shows American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. She is also cofounder and board member of many startups, social ventures, and nonprofit organizations around the world.