By Chris Cannon

 

One of my favorite meditation games is imagining humanity in its earliest stages of innovation – with only the rawest of resources – and then picturing where we are now, using technology that was inconceivable to our remote ancestors.

How did we get from cookfires to lasers? From rafts to spaceships? From squinting to telescopes?

How do we ever get from here to there, when we don’t even know where there is? Click To Tweet
The innovation process is a series of compartmentalized steps that help you get from here to there.

 

It’s ironic that we use a light bulb image to symbolize a sudden, great idea. It wasn’t. It was a series of compartmentalized, rigorously tested ideas, eventually stacked one atop another to reach a transformative end product. The light bulb wasn’t invented in a flash of intuition, it was a process.

While it’s tempting to use the term “baby steps,” that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Baby steps can lead you from here to there in the most basic sense – each step is pretty much the same. We didn’t go from rubbing two sticks together to highly focused beams of light by repeating the same steps over and over. We had to innovate along the way.

But even the innovative leaps that move us forward – despite the romantic notion of the “Eureka moment” – are rarely carried out in a single motion. To truly harness the power of innovation, we have to compartmentalize the process, breaking things down into small, digestible chunks that bring about short-term goals that may have no value in themselves, but work in service to a grander idea.

You can’t figure out how to climb a mountain by staring at the peak. You have to explore the available paths in front of you. To truly see beyond the seeable, we have to take our eyes off the big picture and pay more attention to the immediate details, one detail at a time. We have to compartmentalize our innovation.

Getting from here to there

Innovation requires more than leaps of the imagination, it requires an innovation process that isn’t so intimidating that one feels they are required to perform miracles. Innovation requires a series of small, actionable steps, narrowing our focus to one issue at a time.

To continue along the “fire-to-laser” theme, let’s make a historical pit stop at one of the defining moments of that transition – the invention of the light bulb.

The predecessor to the light bulb was the arc lamp, which produced an electrical discharge between two carbon electrodes. But the invention wasn’t widely scalable – arc lamps required giant batteries, produced harsh light, and needed constant maintenance. An innovative leap was needed – cheap, reliable, scalable incandescent bulbs. Such a thing could not be intuited in whole – only by compartmentalizing the different angles of the problem could a solution be found.

Filaments

The heart of an incandescent bulb is its filament. The ideal filament had to glow brightly without melting or burning out quickly. Early inventors experimented with hundreds of materials for this critical component, ranging from platinum to carbonized thread to bamboo. Through rigorous testing, they identified materials that could sustain the intense heat and emit a pleasant light for a prolonged period, leading them to solutions like tungsten.

Atmosphere

The environment inside the bulb was vital to its operation. Experiments ranged from creating a near-perfect vacuum to reduce filament oxidation to filling bulbs with inert gasses like nitrogen and argon. These gasses slowed down filament degradation, extended bulb life, and improved brightness. The process was all about striking a balance to maximize efficiency.

Power Source

While the arc lamp depended heavily on sizable battery systems, there was a need for a more sustainable and scalable power source. Experiments oscillated between direct and alternating current systems. It was essential to find a source that was not only efficient in power conversion but also safe for widespread residential and commercial use.

Distribution

Bringing light to homes wasn’t just about the bulb; it was about the entire ecosystem. Innovators looked at myriad ways to distribute electricity efficiently. They developed wiring systems, transformers, and generators. Every element had to be reimagined and refined to ensure that once the power left its source, it was delivered safely and reliably to illuminate bulbs in homes, streets, and businesses.

Refinement

The light bulb’s evolution didn’t stop once it lit up. There were challenges at every turn: how to make filaments last longer, how to increase brightness without consuming more power, how to manufacture bulbs in varied shapes and sizes for different purposes. Every hurdle was dissected, understood, and iteratively refined, ensuring that what started as a simple bulb transformed into an innovation that lit up the world.

The story of the light bulb showcases how innovators didn’t simply “look at the mountain” of creating scalable electric light. Instead, they navigated the intricate paths, dissecting each aspect of the challenge, focusing on immediate details that realized the broader vision of widespread electric illumination. This epitomizes how compartmentalized thinking can progressively unlock doors to grand innovations.

Practical steps to compartmentalizing your innovation

You can’t climb Innovation Mountain by following a set path to the summit. Each stage presents its own unique challenges: perhaps a raging river to ford, a steep ledge that demands a new climbing strategy, or an unexpected ravine that calls for a detour. By focusing on and adapting to each segment of the climb, you not only navigate the immediate hurdles but also equip yourself with the versatility needed to reach the peak.

Deconstruct the challenge

Dismantling an innovation project into its elemental components lets you focus on the intricacies of each unique challenge, how these challenges are related to each other, and how each of them serves the larger goal. Consider the light bulb: understanding its filament’s properties was just as critical as grasping the importance of the bulb’s internal atmosphere. But obviously the filament must operate within that atmosphere, and these challenges need to be met in a way that results not in just a useable filament or viable atmosphere, but in a working light bulb.

Prioritize and sequence

Every innovation task holds unique value. But to navigate the path of innovation efficiently, one must frame tasks in terms of their potential impact, feasibility, and expected ROI. Setting them in a logical sequence, from foundational tasks (filament, atmosphere, power source) to scalable improvements (distribution, increased brightness, larger bulbs), ensures a systematic approach to tackling the individual challenges.

Implement Agile action steps

Embracing an agile methodology keeps you flexible and adaptable, ready to make iterative changes based on continuous feedback, even as you try to work in a linear direction. Certain filaments might work well in certain types of atmosphere, but not at all in others. So while filaments and atmospheres are compartmentalized into separate tasks, maintaining an agile mindset helps us transform setbacks into learning opportunities (this filament doesn’t work in this atmosphere – so what kind of atmosphere DOES it work in?), propelling the innovation forward with a clearer understanding of the problem (and potential solutions) along the way.

Stage-Gate Process

An effective way to guide the innovation journey is through the stage-gate process, which provides a structured method for moving from one phase of development to the next. By having clear checkpoints or gates, innovators can ensure that they are on the right path, making necessary adjustments along the way.

Common pitfalls

Climbing a mountain is as much about avoiding missteps as it is about making the right ones. While compartmentalization can be a powerful tool in innovation, there are common mistakes that can divert you from the quickest route. Being aware of these can mean the difference between a successful ascent and getting stuck halfway up.

Over-segmentation

The potency of compartmentalization lies in its ability to clarify and simplify. However, an excess of anything can be detrimental. Fragmenting tasks to an extreme degree can scatter your focus. The essence of the primary objective might get diluted amidst the myriad micro-tasks. While breaking things down is essential, one must always maintain a balance to ensure the broader vision remains undimmed.

Innovation procrastination

Compartmentalization can inadvertently lead to procrastination (or analysis paralysis). The comfort of handling smaller tasks might make one avoid tackling bigger, more daunting challenges. It’s essential to strike a balance – to ensure that while one is engrossed in the details, the momentum towards achieving the larger goal isn’t lost. Periodic reviews can serve as checkpoints to gauge progress against the overarching objectives.

Rigid compartments

Innovation is a fluid process, constantly evolving with new information and insights. Rigidly adhering to predefined compartments can hamper adaptability, hindering swift responses to fresh challenges or opportunities. It’s vital to blend the structure that compartmentalization offers with the flexibility that innovation demands, ensuring that the approach is both systematic and adaptable.

A managed approach

Compartmentalization isn’t just a strategy; it’s a mindset. It serves as a dual-purpose tool, providing both a practical roadmap and a psychological anchor for innovators. From feeling overwhelmed by the sheer scale of innovation to being nimble, in control, and forward-moving, compartmentalization can truly transform the innovation journey. Embracing this approach can help innovators navigate their path with agility, clarity, purpose.

 

Lessons Learned

  • Innovation isn’t a singular leap; it’s a series of calculated, compartmentalized steps that culminate in transformative change.
  • Over-segmenting tasks can dilute the primary objective, while under-segmenting can lead to overwhelming challenges.
  • Continuous feedback and agility within compartmentalized tasks ensure alignment with the broader innovation vision.

Special thanks to Tristan Kromer and Megan Kennedy for reviewing and giving feedback on this post.

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