The elements of ingenuity

Ingenuity is everywhere. We see it when Steph Curry sinks a seemingly impossible shot against a bigger opponent. We watch it during the Super Bowl when Tide gets viewers thinking maybe every ad is a Tide ad. We notice it at parties and proms across the country now that Rent the Runway has changed the way we dress for fancy occasions.

Curry defies basketball convention in ways that make his game hard to predict or defend. Tide uses the established tropes of television advertising and turns them on their head. Rent the Runway questions long-held assumptions about shopping and disrupts an industry.

In each of these examples, there’s a combination of elements at play that leads to a surprising and refreshing result. Perception, intuition and creativity — together they represent a formula that works across, and beyond, these examples. Combined they comprise ingenuity.

Perception, intuition, creativity. Together they illuminate what might have been invisible. They become the idea that we hold up to the light — inspecting it, prodding it, reshaping it until it is well beyond the norm.

The trick is to alchemize these elements into the right amounts, put them to work in the right environments, and target them toward the right problem. When done correctly, all of this leads to startling solutions and translates to measurable business value for organizations committed to bringing ingenuity to life.

We orient our firm and our projects around enabling ingenuity everywhere we can. By understanding the elements of ingenuity and putting them to work, we take unexpected paths to greatness.

Understanding the Elements

perception

Paying attention is a lost art. In a world that normalizes distraction, multitasking and the fiction that someone can read his phone and listen to you talk at the same time, so much is missed. Perception is the difference between hearing and listening, seeing and watching. It’s a subtle but meaningful shift because it moves us from passive observers to active participants. By paying real and careful attention to the world around us, we actually learn. We understand nuance, identify themes, isolate root causes of problems, and explore potential solutions.

That sort of attention is vital when working with clients to address business challenges, or when researching users so that we can better understand their needs and behaviors. It is foundational to the goal of enacting real change.

intuition

You know it when you see it. You trust your gut. That’s commonly considered intuition, but intuiting something is much more sophisticated. Intuition is about pattern recognition; it stems from practice and experience. Regardless of whether we’re talking about playing an NBA game or designing a mobile interface, intuition makes it much easier to understand what’s likely to succeed or fail.

Our senior designers have a deeper well of experience to draw from than most, so that’s a good start. But it’s when we put them in scenarios where they have to draw connections between disparate projects that they really flourish. How is this like that? What patterns can you see? Highlighting thematic similarities of different types of problems reveals how, for example, improving safety for construction workers on job sites can inform the ways we help physicians reach their continuing education goals (hint: both solutions involve small technology deployments to augment things people are already doing).

creativity

It’s not a flash of lightning. It’s not bestowed on the chosen few. Everyone has a wellspring of creativity inside them; it’s just that some people trust their creative urges more than others. Creativity, at its core, is the art of challenging established conventions — using these conventions as the beginning of an exploration instead of the end of the discussion.

Setting aside assumptions can lead to creative milestones that deliver a maddening range of results — from incremental improvements to big new dreams. Amazon is a great example of an organization creatively moving beyond convention. The retail visionary first improved how we pay for things online via 1-Click Checkout. Later they evolved shipping (and loyalty) via Amazon Prime. Recently, they’ve enhanced how we order (via voice commands to Alexa) and where we pick-up our packages (via Amazon Lockers).

Perception, intuition, creativity. Together they illuminate what might have been invisible. They become the idea that we hold up to the light — inspecting it, prodding it, reshaping it until it is well beyond the norm.

How it Works

move quickly

There absolutely is such a thing as a bad idea, but there’s also tremendous benefit to thinking broadly about potential options, subjecting them to feedback and then understanding what resonates and what doesn’t. This process of “failing fast” moves us past the non-starters, places emphasis on the high potential ideas, and builds momentum. So, we generate our smart hypotheses quickly and put them to the test. This means we can identify the areas that carry the most impact, without wasting time on the other stuff.

be bold

Every solution has a constraint, usually in the form of the time, materials or money available to solve a problem. This is where ingenuity can sweep in and make a bold move, revealing new and unexpected possibilities.

In our experience, time is almost always a constraint. So, since we’re often given less-than-ideal time to solve a problem, we gravitate toward focusing on the most critical components. That’s true whether we’re attempting to gain user understanding in days instead of weeks, or whether we’re trying to sketch an interface in minutes instead of hours.

In workshops with clients, we’ll use ludicrously short time cycles to come up with critical elements of a new product. Because it turns out that when you only have a moment (literally) to sketch-out a new tool, that’s where ingenuity shines.

free yourself

Unharness yourself from expected outcomes; they are the death of inspiration. Tangents, digressions, shortcuts — all of these are invaluable to us in our work. We encourage divergences from the standard approach; that’s how we keep the innovative options on the table.

U.S. General George Patton conveyed this idea better than we could when he said, "Never tell people how to do things; tell them what you need them to accomplish and let them surprise you with their ingenuity."

It’s that principle — applied to managing people, processes and projects — that creates the environments in which true ingenuity thrives.