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A discussion about innovative pioneering

By John Stephen Veitch

The Person

Progress isn't made by lovable people, it's made by tenacious, strong and pragmatic people.  There's a short step from doing very ordinary things in a very normal way, and becoming engrossed in an innovative task that nobody else seems to find interesting.  The person who has a new insight into an existing process or who recognises the possible significance of an unexpected event has a problem.  Somehow that knowledge has to be coped with, without recourse to magic, or miracles, or worse still self censorship.  An American psychologist, Howard Gruber says that great thinkers "bracket" the unexpected event or the piece of data that doesn't fit.  They treat it like a golden piece of jigsaw, and treasure it until they find where it does fit.  This becomes part of one's work.  It may become the target of one's entire future focus.  Every resource one has may be committed to resolving the problem.

In all good stories the person with the grand objective achieves the goal.  But things don't usually run so smoothly.  When your work takes you to the frontier there are no reliable maps.  Those maps that may exist may be as misleading as helpful.  The hazards by the way are never what one would wish to happen.  One learns that nature doesn't care about failures and neither does the community.  Never mind, hardships that don't kill you, strengthen you.  You go on, each stage of your work seems to be a stepping stone that prepares you for some task not previously imagined.  This is not the journey of a hero, it's the journey of a lover.  The community may be interested in what you can sell, in your cash income, but the really essential thing is your progress in your work, in your development of new and better ideas and in documentation of your progress.  If you are breaking new territory you need to map it as you go.

I have friends for whom the previous paragraph has no meaning.  They believe that every goal is achievable and that the words "problem" and "failure" should be expunged from the language.  "Don't reinvent the wheel" and "Just do it" are typical statements in their self talk.  They brag about their achievements; but they know nothing. They will discover nothing.  The mystery of the universe, the layer upon layer of new meaning and new discovery will never be revealed to them; they never look for it, nor do they have any concept of anything beyond their own narrow world.  You will be aware of people who promote brainstorming and who advocate thinking outside the square.  This is party game activity, it's not serious creative effort, it's part of the virtual defence people create for themselves.  It's the pretend innovation of emperors, politicians and business managers.  The only way to learn the lessons of the frontier is to go there, to live there.  The Board of Directors may sit at the board table and imagine what life is like in the jungle, but nothing they imagine can give them the experience. 

Intrinsic Interest

Innovators in contrast find something of interest and investigate it deeply.  They focus on practical tasks in a real world, and often find that there is more to achieving the intended objective than expected.  That's a common everyday experience.  The process of finding a way forward raises some questions, which one tries to answer using the accepted methods.  But what if the answers are unsatisfactory?  What if there is a niggling doubt about the validity of a conclusion, or about the failure of some test results? What then?  For most people, nothing.  They self censor knowledge of the problem and move on to something else.  People see what they expect to see. Those who set goals and who have specific objectives create mind-sets that are prepared only to see what they anticipate.  To see anything else is very difficult.  Since this goal oriented behaviour is encouraged, there's a lot of shonky science done even in the best places. 

Reported failures (3 cases) in police investigations following the sudden death of a female highlight the problem.  A senior policeman makes a decision about "what happened" and evidence to confirm that view is looked for and found. As soon as the "accidental death" is "confirmed" another case can be "closed".  There are no untidy files, no expensive time consuming real investigations.  The operation is efficient, but it's not a system that produces best results for the community.  We are told that setting measurable objectives guarantees the efficient use of resources. The people who believe in efficient innovation, think that creative activity is like planting carrot seed.  If you plant now and you thin in three weeks, you can expect to harvest in ten weeks.  Such people know nothing about innovation.  They have never been to the frontier.

Paradigm Shifts

The great bulk of scientific work occurs within the recognised paradigm (the accepted way of doing things) and involves slow methodical effort which makes progress by incremental stages.  This is the work of a research organisation, it's the development work that improves products but seldom (some think never) develops anything really new.  There is little innovation possible in such an organisation because the professional paradigm constrains behaviour.  This is not the territory of the trail blazer, but there is a lot of important work to do here and this is how many of the best brains in science and technology are occupied.  Research establishments and businesses have procedures that stop people using time and resources doing things outside "productive" normal activities.  There are people who break the rules, who hijack resources and steal their employers time for personal research.  Some firms accept such behaviour, others do not.  I understand that 3M give it's research staff cash and time resources 15% over budget to use as they wish, they build slack into the system.  There are some firms that encourage staff to undertake private projects outside normal work hours, offering at a later stage to establish small project teams around the innovator.  The innovator becomes the project champion, other people become mentors, assistants and suppliers of resources, and the project develops with minimal use of budgeted funds. 

In my experience N.Z.  firms do not have this type of enabling culture. Dr Di Gilbertson of Victoria University says that 90% of N.Z.  managers believed that their firm didn't expect them to use their creative skills. We are a nation of tinkerers, we adapt, we make do, we go without.  Dr Murray Aiken from the University of Canterbury, says that we are good at using old technology to fix up things that break down.  N.Z.  inventors create out of isolation and desperation.  We are a nation in the wilderness if you like, but too much of what we do is really a patch up with a piece of No 8 wire.  We are not the great innovative nation we are encouraged to believe that New Zealand is. 

Innovation Myths

Inventors miss out on recognition and reward because of the pseudo-information in the environment about great inventive heroes.  Nobody bothers to explain that great creative thinkers usually have very difficult lives.  The ideal of positive thinking is widely advocated as the key to innovative success. Positive thinking is the antithesis of being a creative and inventive thinker. Positive thinking is the idea that you (everyone) can be successful by hard work and persistence within the existing paradigm.  This is nonsense, it's a form of magical thinking.  The people who advocate positive thinking, often leaders of the community, are emperors without any clothes.  The willing acceptance of such foolishness by much of the business community illustrates how deeply indoctrinated most of us are.  The continued adherence of most people to superstitious and magical rituals and beliefs is disturbing. The gap between science and the beliefs of ordinary people seems to be increasing.  The more rapid the rate of change in our society the more popular ideas that are primitive, tribal and medieval seem to become. 

In contrast progress by innovation is made by people who are skeptical, critical and realistic thinkers.  Positive thinking is shonky science, the converse of good invention and sound thinking.  The creative energy often starts in a search to understand, that is stimulated by the failure of a project, or the discovery of a detail in your experience that doesn't fit the pattern you expected.  Most people, in the effort to make sense of the world dismiss that detail.  They ignore it or fail to see it at all.  Normally people only see what they expect to see.  An event that goes against what you expected has the potential to teach you something. Usually the lesson is too hard, too complex, or contradicts things that you "know".  The creative person needs to work very hard for freedom from dogma, from pseudo information, and from the things that "everyone knows" that eventually prove to be wrong. 

Four Key Resources

Innovation requires knowledge, and the ability to recognise an absence of knowledge.  The main barrier to innovation is pseudo knowledge.  All the things that we believe, that are not true, handicap us and make it difficult to progress.  None of us is immune.  Many common ideas are part of the garbage that pollutes our intellectual environment.  These ideas are dysfunctional to the extent they prevent access to reality.  Pseudo knowledge for believers, has a function in making them feel better about themselves, or more in command of the world.  It's a psychological defence if you like.  The idea that we were all born perfect is a simple example.  Other simplistic and wrong ideas are, that hard work is always rewarded, or that only positive thinkers succeed, or that "can" is a better and more important than "can't", or that training will ensure future employment. People who use positive thinking, or astrology or who use affirmations to condition and programme their subconscious minds, are trying to live in a virtual world. 

Nothing can be built with nothing.  Invention is no different.  Good creative people have lots of experience.  Behind creativity there may be years of record keeping and project development. Innovation doesn't come out of freedom, it's the combination of knowledge and skill and control and inspiration with a real task.  Most of us learn five years too late that we should have started collecting systematic notes long ago.  Experience that is not recorded in some way gets lost.  I keep a journal which now runs to 33 volumes.  A friend has dozens of project folders, a woman I met recently spoke of her archive draw.  The American humorous speaker Charles Jarvis tells of 15 years as an amateur researching and preparing material.  The late film maker Waldo Salt kept a journal in the form of character sketches and story boards of film ideas. 

The essential resource for an innovative person is an ideas bank, a large collection of carefully selected and considered pieces of data.  If you want to succeed, work at building your "idea bank".  This is a labour of love, nobody will pay you to do it.  The idea bank becomes something that other people cannot take from you, it's uniquely your own property.  For that reason alone, to a large extent other people cannot steal your ideas.  Even with the active support of the developer it's hard enough to bring a project to fruition.  Without the champion and his or her background knowledge, most ideas don't have enough energy to succeed.  Even if a particular idea is hijacked by someone else, they can't duplicate the source of that idea, they can only attach it to the ideas that they have already developed. The most likely result of that is nothing.  Invention connects something from one's idea bank, with a task in the present.  That connection may be helped by an chance event of some kind.  What you discover may be what you were looking for, but sometimes the discovery is in another field altogether. This is common enough to have been given a name, serendipity.  Fleming's discovery of penicillin is the most famous example. 

Data (most people would use the term information) for your ideas bank can be obtained from other people and from books, or from your own life experience.  When you first hear about a new concept you evaluate it for content and you choose either to store it or to ignore it.  The critical data is that tiny part that we store without acceptance, the piece that puzzles us, the bit that we believe might be true but doesn't fit into the existing mind map.  The best creative people write their data down, sift it, work through it, re-organise it and make it part of themselves. Data only slowly transforms itself into information and eventually into knowledge.  Human capacity to do this is a limitation on the rate of change. Only after data has become knowledge is one able to use it in a creative way. 

The lone creative individual who works from home or in a small workshop, is constrained by lack of money and materials and support, but doesn't have the constraint of professional expectations.  People in my experience never work in this way by choice.  The intention was always to be part of the main stream, but life events often take us on a journey we never intended to begin.  There might have been a time when by making a different choice, working in the wilderness could have been avoided.  One might have lived comfortable and safe, with a manager, a salary and your expenses paid. But a failure, a personal or family crisis, or the call of ambition or truth, or the love of the work, led one to work in this interesting but sparse environment.  Life in the wilderness is always to some extent self chosen, it's the price of integrity.  Once you step outside the framework of a job and a task defined by others there's no certainty of return.  Most people who work outside the paradigm live lives of struggle, a continual battle to sustain both life and the work.  There are no guarantees that life in the wilderness will have a favorable outcome.  One discovers that it's simply not true that you can do anything.  You learn that every project has a hiding hand, that the risk of failure is real.  One goes forward frightened of the future, but driven to go on anyway. 

Life on the frontier is complicated by the lack of maps.  The failure to consult the maps that do exist is commonly seen as a mistake made be amateurs.  Since frontier maps are often wrong, one can never be sure if reading someone else's research is going to help or hinder your effort. I take the position that you should read the research, but that you shouldn't do that first.  One takes a journey that involves reading, talking, planning, trying things out, measuring, recording and evaluating.  Finding a companion for the journey must be a luxury few can know.  (I dream of having contact with one other person who shares my concerns.  At root this is probably the desire to be in the mainstream again.  Foolish thoughts.) The return to normal activities is possible at any time.  All you have to do is forget why you went to the frontier in the first place.  Give up your quest.  Get a job, sweep floors, clean other people's cars, contract out your labour. alternatively, you work on.  If you succeed in your quest, and can convince others, you may find your way back to the world of normal activities.  Nobody else can make those choices for you.  Each one must decide, and live with the consequence of choosing. 

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