To Innovate, Seek Novelty

Curiosity“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”


Leonardo da Vinci once said that “things of the mind left untested by the senses are useless.” Flight fascinated him. A keen observer, he studied the flight of birds. The stepping stones of his studies include a Codex on the Flight of Birds (c. 1505 ), and plans for several flying machines.#

His helicopter could be built of wood, reeds and taffeta. “A small model can be made of paper with a spring like metal shaft that after having been released, after having been twisted, causes the screw to spin up into the air.” He also drew and made models of other flying machines.

From the comforts of having seen helicopters and airplanes, it's very hard to look at his schematics and models and know that nothing like them existed before. Not all Leonardo's models worked. Nor did they get built. But they were necessary stepping stones. They created potential. 

Observing the flight of birds helped. In addition to inventor and engineer, Da Vinci was also astronomer, sculptor, geologist, mathematician, architect, botanist, animal behaviorist, and even musician.

Experts have a kind of intuitive power. They're experts because they took the time to collect dots. They have something to connect. Or a starting point.


And their subjective gaze is vital to innovation.


We need to embrace this subjectivity and seemingly aimless collection of dots if we want to achieve our human potential. If you want to innovate, curiosity and interests are more important than goals.


The problem with focusing only on problems

Culture and society favor objective optimization. In the name of spelling out clear objectives for everything, we discourage the search for novelty. We even run algorithms based on objectives. “Interestingness” is very hard to protect. Compromise for all creates mediocre washout effects.

The problem with this approach is that we don't know what we don't know. Hence we fail to uncover potential. You can find better solutions by not trying to solve the problem. Deception is the reason why you can't find things by looking for them.

Few today would be hard-pressed to deny Leonardo Da Vinci's genius. I know it's hard to conceive from the comforts of modernity. But the polymath wasn't looking to be innovative. He wasn't consumed with the goal of meeting objectives. By creating lots and lots of stepping stones, he discovered things before trying to discover them.

Kenneth Stanley* was researching artificial intelligence (AI.) And ran into a flaw with objectives. He discovered that setting objectives can block their own achievement. It sounds ridiculous to put it this way. But that's what he and colleagues found. They found it because they weren't looking for it.


Some of the stepping stones may not look like the final result[image via Kenneth Stanley]


And the consequences go farther than just AI. They extend to creativity, innovation, and collaboration. Things most of us agree we need to solve complex problems. Further, without protection of individual autonomy, collaboration can become dangerously objective.

Stanley and Joel Lehman decided to write a book about their insight. Because so much of society is run by objectives, they felt that the flaw they uncovered could block creative and innovative endeavors. Why Greatness Cannot be Planned helps explain why biological evolution, science, and human culture are creative, endlessly innovative processes.


Failure is often a necessary stepping stone

to finding novelty.


Ironically, the more different and novel things you do that are the furthest away from your (initial) goal, the more likely you are to actually attain the initial goal through near effortless mastery of the stepping stones.


Going beyond duality

A practical application of novelty search leads to unexplained, yet outstanding results. It happens even as we cannot explain the implied novelty paradox.

Yet in the haste to control and measure for the objective, we forego more difficult to grasp (and explain) qualitative elements of search to favor the quantitative. “When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process,” says Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Modern life has become all taking care of the business at hand. And little to no long stretches of time to think things through. To answer fundamental questions of life, and work, we need the bursts of productivity and the stretches of reflection.

Pirsig held degrees in chemistry, philosophy, and journalism and also studied Oriental philosophy at Benares Hindu University in India. All dots to connectin writing, but also for readers. Motorcycle maintenance a framework familiar to the author. 

The questions about the wisdom of dividing the world up into a duality of the physical vs. the mental, of seeing ourselves as somehow separate from everything else are timeless. His is the kind of book you could read at different phases of your life and learn something different.

Stepping stones take you further because they don't succumb to facile duality. They are multiples. And you can create more options with many paths. You can connect from the work of others, too. Zeros and ones miss a lot of nuance. And the shortest path could become the longest, or the least effective.

You might not judge it efficient, but exploring more broadly is key in innovation as in life. Stepping stones, the dots, are the hard part. Once they create the potential, we can uncover new combinations. Rainer Maria Rilke said it better than I could: “Perhaps creating something is nothing but an act of profound remembrance.”


Curiosity helps us build the future

“We like lists because we don't want to die,” says Umberto Eco. Lists create culture. And current culture has created lists that separate and classify. Easier to account for and control. But not a viable path for building the future. For that, we need to embrace curiosity.

Cultivating our curiosity helps us stay open to new experiences and increase our odds of stumbling on activities we would not have imagined. Our lifelong capacity to learn has worked well for the human species. 

An extended childhood—the brain develops fully during the first 72 months of exposure to experiences, but continues to build nuance and sophistication much longer—gives us the opportunity to absorb more from our surroundings.


We're curious by design.


Even as adults, we continue learning new ways of thinking and doing things, which helps us adapt to new circumstances. We learn by experimenting at any age. Being truly open, inquisitive and curious has become the very basis for all that I do and how I think, says Sir Jony Ive. Having a genuine relish for being surprised and for learning is fundamental to creating.

As Stanley discovered with trying to get to interesting searches using AI, cognitive computing is also teaching us something new about how we learn. Computer scientists have explored how behavior evolves when guided by different algorithms.

Even the best learning algorithms need encouragement to explore, or they stop learning. Researchers have also found that without some distraction from what they should be doing, these algorithms get stuck in a rut, relying on the same responses time and time again.

In trying to become more predictable, to make sure bets (one need only to look at job descriptions), we are cutting off human potential. We're eliminating or pruning the stepping stones. This stunts growth. Exploring may cost us opportunities to optimize, to build efficiencies, but it provides us with the potential for invaluable insights.


To innovate, seek novelty

Sir Jony Ive has created some of the most iconic symbols of modern productivity. Yet, he says, wanting to learn is far more important than sticking with what we know:

Many of us have a natural or innate predisposition to be curious, though I have learned that after a traditional education or working in an environment with many people, it has to be a decision it requires intent and discipline.

In interactions with larger groups many us gravitate towards the tangible and the measurable it is more comfortable far easier and more socially acceptable to talk about what is known. Of course being curious fuels our appetite to learn and wanting to learn is far more important than being right.

Curiosity can unite us and form the basis for powerful and joyful collaborations and crucially the delight and joy of curiosity and learning can temper our fear of doing something completely new.

Lastly, one of the wonderful consequences of being open is that you find yourself actually listening. To listen well means you need to be quiet; great ideas can come from the quietest voice… I think it would be great to resist the urge to fill every moment of every minute with opinions and to listen.


Being curious far more important than being right[Jony Ive]


Curiosity is the secret to a bigger life. And it can change the way we collaborate, build, and lead. Kenneth Stanley says, from what they've uncovered, it's important not to lead others exactly as you'd want of that you think is right. Diversity is a strength: more stepping stones.

Curiosity helps us listen more closely. And not focus too much on the objectives we come up with for the problem to solve. Because we do problem solving by taking steps. A question is a great starting point. Everyone is curious and can contribute. Premature consensus is a compromise for all. It sells opportunity short.

Curiosity is also one of the pillars of emerging co-creation. Its benefits are multiple, including better understanding and collaboration between departments, and asking better questions. Like the brain, curiosity grows by use.


With practice, we can expand our capacity for finding

new stepping stones and dots to connect.


How do you collaborate in the new world of work? That is a bit the paradox of our age. How do you stay agile in the face of constant change? Not just when circumstances are easy and convenient. But also when the chips are down.

Discover the emerging framework with us. Do you respect your own work? Change the way you lead, and work.



* Kenneth Stanley is Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Central Florida and senior research scientist at Uber AI Labs.

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