A bunch of years ago, as part of religious education teacher training, we were given an exercise: sitting in a large circle, each of us was to take a lump of clay, close our eyes, imagine what is in the clay, and then mold it, allowing the clay to “express itself.” After about five minutes we all opened our eyes. Everyone else had beautiful sculptures of varying degrees of complexity and intricacy. I had an ashtray. It was the only thing I could imagine was in that clay.
I’ve not generally considered myself to be a very creative person. I have no artistic ability whatsoever, challenged to draw even a stick figure dog or tree. While I perform music, I am in awe of anyone who can create even the simplest three-chord tune. And when asked to do the sort of mental exercise like “come up with as many different uses for a bar of soap as you can,” my list typically consists of “wash hands, wash face, wash neck, wash table, wash dishes…”
So I was really struck by an article in the April edition of Southwest Airlines’ magazine (thanks to Juliet Kersten for calling my attention to it), entitled “Chasing Beautiful Questions.” It tells the story of Van Phillips, who as a young man lost his leg in an accident. Not content with the prostheses available, he invented the springy scimitar-shaped prostheses made famous by Oscar Pistorius (“The Blade Runner”). The key to this and many other innovations is a series of three questions:
- Why…? This can take the form of challenging the status quo (“Why are current prostheses so stiff?”), or simply wondering about an interesting phenomenon (“Why do cockleburs stick so tenaciously to clothing?” – the question that led to Velcro).
- What if…? This starts the process of imagining the alternatives. What if a prosthetic leg didn’t look like a leg? What if we could manipulate surgical tools remotely? What if we could replace an abnormal gene with a normal version?
- How might…? Here is where vision starts to become reality. This question is often answered by making a leap from one domain to a completely different one, making a connection that others have not. I might try shaping a leg like that of a cheetah in motion. We might connect a scapel to a video-game style joystick. Viruses insert their genes into cells they infect – perhaps we could use viral enzymes to do the same.
A few people – Thomas Edison, Van Phillips, Norman Woodland (inventor of the UPC bar code), Mary Anderson (inventor of the windshield wiper) – can ask and answer all three of these questions. They become known as innovators. But most innovation is the result of a team effort. Almost all of us can do a decent job with at least one of these questions. At Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, innovation is one of our core values. Our motto is “kids deserve the best,” and innovation is key to giving them that, by allowing us to constantly improve. I think many of us think of innovation as something that a small group of people, the researchers, do. Yet as long as all of us are asking at least one of those questions – Why? What if? How might? – we are all innovating. Even if all we can make from a lump of clay is an ashtray.