Six Key Facts About Connecting the Dots for True Innovation

by Akbar Jaffer
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kid being creative with building blocks

Six Key Facts About Connecting the Dots for True Innovation

connecting the dots image - Steve Jobs connecting the dots “Connecting the dots” is a very common phrase especially in the business context. According to Farlex’s free dictionary of idioms, to connect the dots is to draw logical inferences connecting items of information to reveal something previously hidden or unknown. In other words, connecting the dots means understanding the relationship between different ideas or experiences. Scientifically, it’s the research process where data is continuously collected and analyzed until some discovery is made. For example, after years of research, professor Jean-Pierre Leburton (of Beckman Institute of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) discovered how nanoparticles can be used to extend the life of stored silicon wafers. However when it comes to innovation especially in the context of consumer products and applications, connecting the dots means something totally different. For true innovation to happen, some seemingly unrelated dots must be connected. For that to happen, dots must first be collected from as many different sources as possible.

This article is about collecting experiences and knowledge from as many varied sources as you can in hopes that, one day, these dots will help you solve problems.

Here are six key facts about connecting the dots for true innovation:

  1. Can’t plan it – Have Faith

    You learn the most valuable things from the least expected source. It can come from reading a magazine while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office, talking to a random stranger in a coffee shop, or taking a class on something you’re curious about. Be non-discriminating about topics and be respectful and open to learning from anything and anyone. It’s about collecting different perspectives in life. That’s only how you get to connect the dots that are seemingly unrelated.

    You can’t always have a purpose in mind ahead of time before you do something. You can’t always plan what you’re going to learn. If you did that you’ll have a tunnel vision. That’s where blind faith comes in. You must have faith that some day you will be presented with an opportunity to solve a problem and you will need life’s experiences to help you solve them better than anyone else.

    Late Steve Jobs was famous for connecting the dots that are seemingly unrelated. Him dropping out of college and auditing calligraphy classes that resulted in personal computers getting the typography they have today. Or vacationing in Italy where he learned about a “gray stone of Florence’s sidewalks.” The same stone is now used as flooring for high-traffic Apple retail stores. (Excerpt From: Walter Isaacson. “Steve Jobs.” iBooks.

    gray stone of Florence’s sidewalksapple store its gray stone flooring

  2. Connect the dots looking backwards

    In his famous Stanford University commencement speech, Steve Jobs elaborates on the fact that you cannot connect the dots looking forward and that you can only connect the dots looking backwards. You don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t know the future. So dots cannot be connected looking into the future because the future. The future is just a great big blank canvas and we create something in it out of nothing.

    When presented with a problem, a challenge, a project, you can come up with a solution by drawing from our experiences, your education, you knowledge and lessons learned. The more diverse these dots, the more innovative solution you come up with.

  3. Time commitment

    Perhaps the biggest factor contributing to connecting the dots is spending the time collecting the dots. There must be a concerted effort in committing the time required to collect these dots and gaining different experiences. Perhaps its in the time it takes for you to save the money to take a big trip, time to work at a job that excites you, the dedication to work on your passion project, or simply time it takes to read a book.

  4. Curiosity and intuition

    Curiosity is how you end up collecting the dots and intuition is what drives you to connect them. Izabella Laba in Steve Jobs on Curiosity and Intuition, quotes Dean Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Business at U of T that innovation should be taught at the K-12 level. Perhaps the process of innovation can be taught. What we should focus on however, is practicing our natural curious self and skills to be more intuitive and daring to go with our gut. Curiosity and intuition are the two brain muscles that should be exercised constantly. Ask the questions why, how, what, and why not.

    In order to come up with unique and insanely great solutions one must be daringly curious. Daring enough to quit school and go say backpacking. One must be fearlessly intuitive without much regard for rules and status quo and definitely without fear of failure. As a matter of fact, one should embrace failures because you learn a great deal from them. Exercising your intuition leads to crazy inferences, absurd ideas, and outrageous products. Out of all this craziness come the likes of the “click wheel” interface and the slick Tesla.

  5. Creativity and Imagination

    When I think of imagination and creativity I think of comedian late Robin Williams and the great puppeteer Jim Hensen. We are all born with some creativity and imagination. However, curiosity, intuition, and the process of collecting the dots fuel both creativity and imagination. They are all interrelated and feed on each other for true innovation to occur. The key is to practice. Practice exercising your brain connecting the dots. Use your imagination to come up with creative ways to do something differently. There is no limit of things to practice on. Take any problem in the world that you are passionate about. Think, how would you solve it if you were in charge.

    kid being creative with building blocks

  6. Courage to execute

    This is the scariest part of innovation. You have used your curiosity, imagination, intuition, and creativity together to come up with different solutions. This is where you take what’s inside your head and put it on paper, build a 3D print model, or guide a team to execute it. Execute on your idea without regard for looking stupid, being ridiculed, or failing. Take an action, course correct, and keep moving until you get it right. True innovation is a journey.

    Imagine, how many designs and models the Wright Brothers must have gone through before their first airplane stayed in the air for more than 10 minutes? And they didn’t even start with the airplanes, they started out with bicycles.

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