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Innovation puzzles.

I'm a longtime fan of the New York Times crossword puzzle; I rarely miss a day, and completing a Saturday puzzle is cause for a small celebration. Over the years, at conferences and on flights, I've discovered that a lot of innovators are also puzzle solvers. At IRI meetings and innovation conferences, I frequently find myself chatting with a crossword aficionado, a fan of Sudoku or Ken-Ken, or an adult who's still fascinated by the Rubik's cube. We may disagree on the best kind of puzzle, but innovators as a group seem drawn to their challenges.

It's easy to see why: a good, challenging crossword puzzle or word game offers, on a miniature scale, the same sense of discovery and satisfaction that successful innovation does. It is not surprising to find that puzzles offer useful lessons for innovators. Here's what I've learned in a lifetime of puzzle solving:

Beware lock on/lock out: In crosswords and other kinds of puzzles, a wrong answer that seems right can get you stuck for a long time. If you really believe you have the fight answer, you can spend hours trying to make it work, but you may be locked on to an impossible solution, unable to relinquish your commitment to something that is actually wrong. In locking on to that solution, you're locking out other possibilities. When I get this stuck, I often give up on the puzzle in disgust, only to see a key element of the solution almost instantly when I pick the puzzle up again later. A little distance has enabled me to unlock from the erroneous solution and see the combination of letters and spaces in a new way.

Sometimes, in innovation, you need to step back and let go of assumptions, even those that seem to be both absolutely true and centrally important. I can remember many instances in which I experienced a sense of both relief and chagrin when I finally let go of a key assumption--only to have the solution I was laboring over appear like magic. Why hadn't I seen it before? Often because it didn't fit with something I "knew" to be true. As Will Rogers once said, "It's not what we don't know that gets us into trouble. It's what we do know that just ain't so."

Exercise flexibility: Words have multiple meanings, and crossword clues are carefully designed to take advantage of that fact. "Grounds" can refer to the basis for a legal proceeding, granules of coffee, the land surrounding a facility, or how a parent punishes a misbehaving teenager. A well-written clue can be read to point to more than one of these meanings at the same time. When I solve a puzzle--especially one of those Friday or Saturday Times puzzles--I have to keep all of the possibilities in sight and be willing to switch between them.

In innovation, too, different perspectives will bring into view different possibilities. Successful innovators are flexible, able to keep multiple perspectives in mind simultaneously. I have tried to learn how to give multiple possibilities credence and to flip back and forth among them as circumstances evolve. The practice you get doing puzzles helps build the flexibility of mind to do this in real-world settings.

Persist: Failure is a way of life for serious puzzle solvers. Most people can't solve a hard crossword puzzle clue by clue. Instead, solvers tend to skip around, searching for the clues that they can answer. My first run through a difficult crossword puzzle frequently leaves a very sparse grid. Somewhere in the grid, though, there is something that I know, something I can build on. That anchor can become the fulcrum on which the puzzle will turn. The one thing I know (if it is true) can be built into an entire solution.

Innovation is often like that sparse grid: there are so many pieces that need to come together, and most of them are unknown. To make innovation work, you may need to approach the world provisionally, starting from a few things (you think) you know and building on them, plowing forward with the faith that you will find confirming or disconfirming evidence on which to build. It takes more patience, more iteration, and more frustration than many people are willing to embrace.

Build on your experience: Solving puzzles is a skill like any other: if you practice--and attend to your experience--you get better at it. In my years of solving crossword puzzles, I've learned the common but obscure words (like eli and aloe) that populate crossword puzzles, discovered how to draw on tense and syntax to read trick clues, discerned the indicators of a puzzle gimmick. And I've gotten better.

Innovation is a far more complex undertaking, but it is nonetheless a skill. Like puzzle solving, it involves innate traits like intelligence and flexibility of mind, persistence, and resourcefulness. But there are also skills that can be learned by experience, and they go beyond the technical or academic. You learn the art of innovation through deliberate practice--by doing and reflecting on hundreds or thousands of innovation experiences. Fortunately or not, there are no magic methods.

Cultivate broad knowledge: Crossword puzzles frequently draw on obscure knowledge, from old movies and celebrities to current phrases and scientific discoveries. It helps to be broad. At times, I find I'm not even fully aware of the knowledge I have. An answer to a clue suggests itself to my subconscious, and I write it in (in light pencil)--and mirabile dictu it turns out to be right. Somewhere in the depths of my memory I had stored something useful.

Breadth also helps the innovator. There are many opportunities in solving customer problems to use knowledge from one arena to resolve an issue in another--by analogy, through metaphor, or just with a shift in perspective. Most good innovators are voracious and continuous learners, and not just in their disciplines. That broad knowledge helps them see context and understand alternate perspectives; it provides a rich bed for innovative thought.

There is one way in which solving puzzles is not like innovation. Puzzle solving is a solitary activity. Most people don't want someone to give them the answer to a clue or hints about how to solve an interesting puzzle. It ruins the fun and seems, somehow, to be cheating. Innovation, on the other hand, is a contact sport. Open innovation is not cheating; it is thinking broadly. Finding lead users and drawing from their experience just makes sense. Time and time again, studies have shown the power of collaboration in driving successful new products and services. In this sense, innovation is more like a co-construction, not of the answers, but of the puzzle itself. Still, crosswords and other puzzles can make you a better team member: one with the perspective, flexibility, willingness to learn, and persistence required to innovate.

Jim Euchner is editor-in-chief of Research- Technology Management and a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management. He previously held senior management positions in the leadership of innovation at Pitney Bowes and Bell Atlantic. He holds an MS in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University and an MBA from Southern Methodist University.
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Title Annotation:FROM THE EDITOR
Author:Euchner, James A.
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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