Iteration: How To Move From The Familiar Into The Unknown

What does the path of a vision look like as it mutates from a familiar starting point into a genuinely novel concept? Unless you are part of the creative process, almost 100% of this journey goes unseen. We experience transformative concepts, largely unaware of the immense amount of creative labor that was required to bring them to life. The journeys are hard to recount in full, given the rapid pace, unintuitive, and indirect path that novel concepts take as they chart new territory.

Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau opened the doors of OMA’s design studios in 1995 with the publication of S,M,L,XL, offering rare insights into their creative practices. Soon after, other influential architects, designers, and chefs published equally weighty monographs aimed at exposing the largely unseen, and as a consequence underappreciated, labor of creativity that is required to generate innovative concepts.

The value in these monographs is not in one or two insightful images or passages, but in the overlooked journey that they focus on. Page by page they take the reader on the winding path through the branchings, recombinations, transformations, and dead ends, out of which novel concepts emerge. Vividly illustrating how teams move from initially familiar ideas towards new and previously unimaginable concepts as their journey’s progress. Progress that is illustrated across hundreds of pages, which collectively demonstrate the most important lesson of all: There are no bounded moments of creative genius. Rather, teams are constantly testing small hypotheses to generate new insights. With that information, moving on to the next set of hypotheses, which if successful, collectively evolve into transformative concepts.

The lessons from the monographs extend much further than architecture, design, and cuisine. With consumer behaviors radically shifting, businesses in almost every domain are pressed to reimagine themselves and how they provide value to their customers. Like the architects, designers, and chefs in the monographs pictured above, businesses must navigate through unfamiliar terrain to develop new concepts that better align with the evolving needs, desires, and constraints of their consumers.

We know from experience and decades of research, however, that people systematically underestimate the value of creative perseverance. Outside of a narrow subset of highly innovative organizations, most don’t realize the tremendous amount of labor that goes into developing transformative concepts. As a result, teams often give up before they have generated their best ideas, which emerge through hundreds if not thousands of iterations and permutations. It took Sir. James Dyson, by example, 5,127 attempts to develop the first cyclonic vacuum. This is the norm, not the exception as most of us would like to believe when it comes to developing breakthrough concepts. In other words: innovative ideas rarely spring to life in bounded moments of creative genius, but rather emerge through creative perseverance.

Famed American artist, Chuck Close, describes the labor of creativity this way: “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. [With] the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great idea.” Yet for interesting and evocative things to “grow out of the activity,” it is critical to have a certain degree of creative resilience. Without the capability and willingness to persevere in navigating through the winding and confusing path of innovation, businesses tend to stop short of developing the kinds of products and services that reshape markets and consumer behaviors.

It is now more important than ever to recalibrate our expectations of how transformative concepts are generated. By reframing and developing creative perseverance within the following three areas of our work practices we will be better enabled to generate more interesting and evocative concepts.

Construction Not Search

The notion of “searching” for new concepts is misleading. Transformative concepts that are genuinely novel (i.e., not having previously existed in our imagination or experience) are not out there waiting to be stumbled upon. No matter how hard we search, we will not find them, because the elements that make them up have not yet been brought together. And as hindsight often misleadingly suggests, new associations between ideas are not obvious at the outset of exploration. We only come to know what we are seeking to construct through the process of experimentation and exploration — which is the fundamental paradox of innovation.

So how do you construct the unknown? It starts by shifting our approach to be more experimental. Without a clear path to pursue, we must encourage teams to test hundreds if not thousands of associations between ideas. Rather than searching for something in particular, teams need to expansively survey new opportunity spaces: selecting, transposing, recombining, and transforming ideas as they navigate through it. With every permutation of the evolving concept, teams gain new insights on where to move next and what hypotheses to test. By recalibrating our expectations, we can focus our efforts on constructing novel associations between ideas, rather than endlessly searching for something that does not yet exist.

Generative Guidance Not Failure

“Fail Fast” has become the battle cry of the rapid prototyping movement. While powerful in intent, it is misleading in action when venturing into the unknown. Failure by its very definition occurs when the established criteria for success are not met. It is therefore at odds with the act of exploring for novel associations between ideas. Rather than testing associations with known outcomes, teams explore hypotheses for which outcomes are unknown. Without a clear path to developing innovative concepts, each cycle of hypothesis testing helps the team gain a better sense of the context within which they are exploring and what they are seeking to construct. Dead ends, while frustrating and time-consuming, provide invaluable insights on where not to move and what can be ruled out. Unlike failure that does not move us forward, iteration through progressive hypothesis testing provides us with generative guidance when venturing through the unknown.

Why is making this distinction so important? We know from experience and research that people disproportionally underestimate the value of creative perseverance. As a result, they tend to settle on a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection. Fears that continued exploration will not yield better solutions are often reinforced when the first few attempts lead to dead ends or uninspiring insights. Having “failed fast” in the conventional sense, most teams give up exploration before they have found the most fertile territories to draw ideas from. Shifting our expectations to more accurately align with the reality that it takes hundreds if not thousands of small iterations and permutations, encourages us to keep generating insights — even when the path seems unfertile at first. And let’s face it, failure is demotivating. Thinking about the iterative processes as generative guidance is liberating, because every little step moves us along — even if they are dead ends.

Emergent Not Immediate

Retrospective accounts of how transformative concepts came to life tend to portray them as appearing in bounded moments of insight. This narrative plays into our cultural desire to believe that we are all poised to be struck by creative genius. The reality however is that genuinely novel concepts, like Dyson’s cyclonic vacuum, are emergent. They come to life over thousands of smaller moments of incremental insight — 5,127 in the case of the vacuum — rather than in one or two bounded moments of creative clarity. This is because ideas that do not currently exist in our imaginations or experience require us to construct new frameworks to make sense of them. The more novel a concept is, i.e., being more resistant to fitting with our existing mental models, experiences, and routines, the more work must go into understanding them. Overcoming this resistance is challenging because it requires us to shift our worldviews. And we know from our personal experiences that shifting our pre-conceptions and interpretive frameworks leave us feeling exposed, confused, and frustrated.

So how do you overcome resistance? Rather than asking teams to take one or two giant leaps into the unknown, it is better to recalibrate expectations and encourage them to take hundreds if not thousands of smaller steps. Leaping into the unknown is confusing, and when teams take this approach they tend to retreat to what they are familiar with after a few confusing and disorientating attempts. By embarking on an iterative journey of transposing, recombining, transforming, and deleting ideas, our worldview slowly shifts along the way. As a result, we are better poised to understand and embrace the new assemblage as it emerges. In doing so, teams can successfully move from the highly familiar context that they start in, towards new and transformative territories with confidence and clarity.

If there is one generalizable lesson that can be taken from these monographs, it is the need to build creative resilience into our organizations. For interesting and evocative concepts to emerge from our work, we have to develop the capability and willingness to persevere in incrementally building the creative insights that inspire innovative concepts to emerge. As David Lane and Robert Maxfield state, “the world in which you must act does not sit passively out there waiting to yield up its secrets. Instead, your world is under active construction, you are part of the construction crew — and there [are no] blueprints.” Fostering a culture within your organization that emphasizes and values creative perseverance will allow you to shape emerging consumer demands and behaviors.

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Andreas Hoffbauer, Ph.D.

Andreas Hoffbauer, Ph.D.

Founder & Director of Atelier Kultur, Doctor of Organizational Innovation & Creativity