Curious About Innovation?

Guest blog by Norman Oulster, advertising writer and father.


One of my most memorable brushes with innovative thinking was when my son was in third or fourth grade.  His teacher, instead of asking her students to collect different kinds of leaves, asked them to look at the bark of different kinds of trees and tell the class what they saw.  This diabolically brilliant and simple exercise wasn’t designed to teach her class how to distinguish a larch from a linden.  It was designed to encourage the kids to hold on to their ability to see everyday things around them with fresh eyes.

The bark on trees, like many other things we see every day, eventually becomes invisible.  Our brains don’t see it as a threat or food, as a mating or financial opportunity, so we tune it out, the same way we tune out so many of the commercial messages, processes and even people in our lives.  My son’s teacher was trying to reverse that sensory triage.

That teacher taught me that you never know where you’re going to find innovators or what they’re going to look like.  They can be introverted or off the wall.  They can be hard workers or bone lazy.  They can be CEOs or part time workers on the loading dock.  But the one thing they all have in common is curiosity.

People who believe that they know everything don’t ask questions. Theirs is a world of certainty as they doggedly recycle the processes and policies that worked yesterday.  Innovators tend to look at life from the opposite perspective.  They don’t see the status quo… they see works in progress.  Whether through brilliance or just plain old contrariness, innovators look at something and wonder why it is the way it is.

Curiosity is the same engine that powers learning and innovation.  Curiosity lets innovators take the same information that others have and find new meaning in it.  Curiosity gives our brains permission to see familiar things, examine how they look and what they do and then boldly re-imagine them.

I still look at tree trunks and notice the amazing ways they’re packaged.  Some bark is smooth, some is like wide-wale corduroy, some reminds me of the plates on a stegosaurus.  In a way, trees stand as a reminder in my work to try to look at everything with curiosity and with fresh eyes.  I mentioned the tree assignment to my son the other day and asked him if he remembered it.  He looked at me as if I was barking mad.


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