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Upside-Down, Sideways, Backwards.

Upside-Down, Sideways, Backwards.

How Creating New Stories Spawns Innovation and Success
Perspective// Posted by: Douglas Cruickshank / 17 Nov 2015

A dozen years ago, I saw the extraordinary documentary Winged Migration. I left the cineplex asking myself, “How on earth did they get that footage?” The camera often seemed to be flying right next to the film’s avian stars. How could filmmakers get so close to wild birds?

I didn’t come up with an answer because my thinking was limited by an internal story—an assumption— about how such films are made: with hidden cameras and telephoto lenses. But the visionary makers of Winged Migration created a new story that never occurred to me: Don’t chase the birds; make the birds chase you. The birds were raised specifically for the film. They had “imprinted” on the film crew, and were habituated to the cameras. When the birds saw their filmmaker “parents” they followed them – making the close-up cinematography easier and natural-looking.

That’s one example of how embedded thinking—the stories we repeatedly tell ourselves of how best to do something—may be fabrications that hobble our achievements. Reversing such thinking can enable innovation. And we can see plenty of examples these days, from the corporate world to art and science, of those who’ve found a better way by taking an unexpected approach to a longstanding challenge: by changing the story.

So-called “disruptive thinking” has been around for a long time. Though the term has achieved buzz phrase prominence in recent years, the process is closely tied with a more fundamental human ritual: the telling of stories, to ourselves, to others, and within our corporate and innovation cultures. Reinventing an entrenched story is now celebrated as the foundation for some of today’s most successful new companies — brash new organizations with names like Uber, AirBnb, Spotify, Shyp, ZipCar, Indiegogo and Kickstarter, Snapchat, Lending Club, Motif Investing, TransferWise and Rent the Runway, to name a dozen. These ventures are finding considerable success by upending convention.

Arriving at solutions by creating new stories is what innovators have done for centuries. Now companies like Uber are applying the approach. In a 2010 post on Uber’s blog, Travis Kalanick, the company’s co-founder and CEO, recalls its origin.

“Garrett Camp and I were hanging out in Paris.... Garrett’s big idea was cracking the horrible taxi problem in San Francisco.” Namely, you can’t get one when you need one. Uber, with its app-centric dispatching, tracks demand in real-time across a city, helping riders and drivers find each other fast. And its no-cash model makes it much safer for drivers. Kalanick says that he and Camp, now Uber’s Chairman, “thought the business was going to be pretty low-tech, mostly operational. Little did we know!” As of March 2015, Uber was operating in 55 countries and more than 250 cities worldwide.

In December 2014 the company was valued at $40 billion.

Getting around is a fundamental problem. But going in style, without going broke, is the challenge that Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman set out to solve. In 2009, Fleiss and Hyman believed that high fashion could be affordable. The two decided to rewrite the old “I don’t have anything to wear” story when Hyman’s sister was appalled at what she’d have to spend for a friend’s upcoming wedding. “She wanted something gorgeous to wear,” reported The Muse, “but didn’t want to drop an obscene amount of money on a dress she’d only wear once.”

The solution: An online service offering designer clothes for every woman. Sounds good, but who can afford to buy designer outfits? Who said anything about buying? Hyman and Fleiss’s Rent the Runway doesn’t sell big name couture, it rents the pricey apparel and accessories. The online venture that’s been termed “Netflix for evening gowns,” is now valued at about $220 million.

How do change-makers enable their unconventional thinking?

Artist/engineer, Alexander Reben, whose work has been widely exhibited and reviewed, is director of technology and research at Stochastic Labs. Though not exactly a business person, he’s immersed in invention on a daily basis. A designer of robots and other devices, he’s interested in “human-machine relationships.” Reben admires the “ability to walk across disciplines and boundaries, and look at the evolving patterns. By thinking widely — in philosophy, psychology, design, and also engineering and computer science — you can sidestep, huge engineering problems—for example, by being cute.”

Cute?

One of the more difficult robot design problems, Reben explains, has been building inexpensive machines that can climb stairs. He looked at the challenge from multiple perspectives— then built “Boxy,” a small, wide-eyed robot that is baby seal adorable. In a childlike voice, Boxy simply asks passing humans to carry it up a nearby staircase. What hard-hearted soul could refuse?

Nearly none, it turns out. “The robot leverages the person’s legs, which are made for climbing stairs,” Reben says. “What the robot uses are not expensive treads and wheels; it’s being cute.” This solution, he points out, “is just not the way most people look at solving such a problem. Thinking across boundaries is something we’re taught not to do in school.”

At the heart of many inventive new businesses is a seemingly intractable story, overturned by a solution so simple that no one’s thought of it.

At the heart of many inventive new businesses is a seemingly intractable story, overturned by a solution so simple that no one’s thought of it. Take international money transfer. It’s not a sexy venture, but it became thrilling indeed when TransferWise started offering peer-to-peer, worldwide money transfers at 90 percent less than conventional financial institutions. TransferWise was started by friends Taavet Hinrikus and Kristo Käärmann. As their company history tells it, “Taavet worked for Skype in Estonia, so (he) was paid in euros, but lived in London. Kristo worked in London, but had a mortgage in euros back in Estonia.” Taavet needed pounds, Kristo needed Euros, but the exchange and transfer fees would take a big bite of their salaries. So each month Kristo deposited pounds into Taavet’s London bank account, and Taavet put euros into Kristo’s account. “Both got the currency they needed,” TransferWise explains, “and neither paid a cent in hidden bank fees.”

Hinrikus’s and Käärmann’s singular leap in thinking questioned how the market’s dominant players had for years been operating something as wham-bam basic as currency exchange, while charging exorbitantly for it. TransferWise’s success highlights a weakness that disruptive businesses frequently exploit: an historical lack of innovation by an industry’s leaders.

One of the best recipes for unconventional thinking may be not knowing the conventional thinking. Being free of assumptions about the story can lead to a better result. Take Zipcar, founded in 1999 by Antje Danielson and Robin Chase, two moms whose kids attended the same kindergarten. It came about not because it had experts at the helm, but because Danielson and Chase knew little to nothing about car-sharing and rental schemes when they hit on their idea: Cars offered by the hour, near your home, with no rental agents, paperwork, gas or insurance costs. You reserve online, get in the car and go. Zipcar raised a meager $75,000 pre-launch; it was purchased by Avis in 2013 for $500 million cash.

Indiegogo, one of the big two crowdfunding platforms (Kickstarter is the other), was founded in 2008 by Danae Ringelmann, Slava Rubin, and Eric Schell as a tool to “democratize” fundraising. All three had tried to raise money for theater productions, films or, in Rubin’s case, cancer research. But access to financing was woefully limited and cliquish. The old funding story, still very much alive, features one or a few big-time investors putting up a small (or not so small) fortune to underwrite a project. In crowdfunding, many people contribute small amounts – $5, $25, $100. It flips the story, but often provides the same happy ending. Indiegogo’s upset of status quo financing has, among thousands of other efforts, resulted in more than $12 million in support for Flow Hive, an innovative beehive (yes, a beehive) and over $5 million for a project to bring computer science education to “every student in every school.”

Desperation is an excellent impetus for great ideas. One of the most widely known of the new disruptors is Airbnb, founded in 2008 by Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk. Before they came on the scene, the story was simple: Want a place to stay in a strange city or country? Book a hotel. One day Chesky and Gebbia woke up broke, in imminent danger of losing their San Francisco apartment. A conference was coming to the city, so they purchased an inflatable mattress — an airbed — and cobbled together a web site, offering breakfast and a place to sleep. “We received so much interest that we had to buy two more air mattresses,” Gebbia told Fast Company. They kept their apartment and rewrote two stories: How to cope with a rough economy (in this case, by monetizing space in their own homes) and how to find accommodation while traveling. Then the Airbnb founders extrapolated, extending their simple idea around the world. The company is now active in 34,000 cities and 190 countries.

Vicariously reveling in such successes is fun, yet it’s also good to look at the roles patience and perseverance play in innovation. Even the most astute thinkers can waste plenty of time going down the wrong road, then suddenly... Well, let’s listen to acclaimed primatologist Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Biology, Neurology and Neurosurgery at Stanford University.

For decades, the focus of Sapolsky’s research has been stress. He’s studied its effects in animals ranging from rats to zebras, baboons to humans. For a full year, while doing graduate work on the effects of stress hormones on the brain, he’d “gotten it into my head that a characteristic of aging was going to be an inability to turn on the stress response.” He tried repeatedly to prove his theory, doing “frantic cartwheels of data analysis” and spending “an entire year with elderly rats.” He finally had to admit he’d failed, and taken a year to do it.

It’s also good to look at the roles patience and perseverance play in innovation. Even the most astute thinkers can waste plenty of time going down the wrong road.

Discouraged, he went off to Kenya to do fieldwork: “Three months of pretty much sitting by myself.” But one day, Sapolsky recalled, “it just hit me: Aging is going to be all about not being able to turn off the stress response. And that turned out to be my thesis.” He’s since authored many acclaimed, popular books, such as Stress, the Aging Brain, and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, A Primate’s Memoir, and several others. Deemed “one of the finest natural history writers around” by The New York Times, Sapolsky has won numerous awards, including a 1987 MacArthur Fellowship genius grant. His grad school breakthrough was brought about by being heavily invested in an idea that was entirely wrong. Alone, immersed in solitude, in the middle of nothingness, with time to reflect, he inverted his idea and found the right answer.

All of this brings up an interesting question. Are we wired to avoid invention? Is unconventional thinking rare because going against the grain can be risky?

“I think virtually everyone has the capacity to do it,” Sapolsky says, “but generally that capacity plummets after early adulthood or late adolescence — because that’s when the familiar begins to be reinforced and pleasurable for its own sake. It’s not for nothing that The Beatles were 20, not 40, when they invented everything they did.” But age is not the sole impediment. Other things get in our way too, Sapolsky says. “I think the potential for such thinking declines with age, and it certainly declines with depression, stress, self-consciousness, and social anxiety.”

The paralysis that comes with one’s fear of saying or doing something “stupid,” he says, “can be crippling” to the kind of free, unfettered thinking that fuels productive creativity. It’s then, he notes, that we seek refuge in repetition. We tell ourselves the old stories, and we believe them, killing our creativity. But if we’re hoping to develop something truly new — whether the perfect ending to a sonnet or a paradigm-shattering business — our stories need to be written anew.

Or at least turned upside down, sideways, backwards. As Keith Johnstone wrote in Impro: Improvisation and the Theater, “Sometimes stories themselves become so predictable that they become routines. It’s no good the knight killing the dragon and deflowering the virgin any more. Killing the virgin and deflowering the dragon is more likely to hold the audience’s attention.”

Douglas Cruickshank
Douglas Cruickshank is the author of Somehow: Living on Uganda Time, a book about his life in Africa, and two anthologies of his earlier writing. For more information, visit his website: douglascruickshank.com