It seems that everywhere I turn in the innovation blogosphere these days there is a constant point of view present among the pundits: innovation is impossible without a healthy cultivation of right-brain, creative thinking along with the more analytical left-brain thinking. Daniel Pink and many others sound the alarm bells for a society, which increasingly stresses rote memorization and standardized tests over creative thought. The Harvard Review recently published an article celebrating the benefits to business of heterogeneous educational and cultural backgrounds and thinking. And I find these arguments both compelling and persuasive.
Daniel Pink claims that a critical economic shift is occurring, and it is a shift away from the traditional, logical, sequential-based economy that has served this country so well for so long, to an economy that combines these left-brained traits with creativity and empathy, and other elements of right-brained thinking. And as I read more and more, I realize that everything old is new again; what Pink, and these other writers are describing is not a new concept, they are describing the “Renaissance man”. Leonardo da Vinci was the archetypal Renaissance man, a scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, painter, musician, writer and more. Thomas Jefferson included on his list of achievements horticulturist, political leader, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, and inventor. These men were the embodiment of innovation, combining both passionate creativity and extraordinary analytical capabilities, and they associated and synthesized knowledge in a manner that gets to the heart of innovation.
The concept of embracing all knowledge and developing all of our capacities in order to reach our full potential as people and as a society is not a new one, it’s merely one that, apparently, we have to rediscover. The thesis put forward by Daniel Pink, and others, is that innovation results from the intersection of left-brain, linear, analytical skills and right-brain, big picture, artistic, empathetic skills. My position is that this notion, that innovation is born of eclectic reading and thinking, a diversity of interests, a patchwork of skills, and the ability to synthesize these skills and interests should not be as newsworthy as it is. The idea that in order to be innovative we must educate our children to be interesting, thoughtful, creative people is not new; it is as old as Aristotle and beyond.
So, perhaps one productive way to view the new age we are apparently entering into is to view it as our own Renaissance of sorts. As the first Renaissance witnessed a flowering of art and literature, and the emergence of a new view of education, equally this Renaissance will return to a greater prioritization of the arts and creativity in both education and business. “Innovation”, “open innovation” and “crowd sourcing” are today’s hot topics, buzzwords that routinely light up the blogosphere and twitterverse. Inevitably, they will be replaced tomorrow. What will remain true, however, is that companies which view creative thought and empathy skills with equal criticality to those of technical skills, be it for recruitment or advancement, will be at the forefront in the coming century. If innovation in all its many forms is part of what will help save us from the forces of outsourcing, automation, and commoditization, then what we need as businesses, as society, parents and individuals, is to ensure that creative and diverse thinking and learning are encouraged, recognized, and celebrated in every area of life. And in the march ahead towards that worthwhile goal, we must learn from the great innovators of the past and reincarnate the educational and societal values which inspired their ideas and reduced their barriers to being innovative.