The time before things happen
Everything seems easy and obvious and inevitable if it happens enough times. If enough time passes after it has happened.
I am not talking about acts of violence, horror and awfulness here, folks, although sadly those tend to be normalised way too often in human history too.
I am actually talking about invention.
How often do you turn on the tap and go ‘oh man, how amazing is it that I don’t have to traipse to a well? How wonderful is it that I don’t need to heat water in cauldrons to take a bath? How blessed am I to have clean, safe water at my fingertips?’
I am going to go with ‘never’.
Not because you are ungrateful, but because you are used to having it. Even when so many people don’t share in our good fortune, even when amazing things are relatively recent, we get used to them. It’s human nature.
And that’s how it works. Everything we create and use, everything we have, we become accustomed to. And then on the back of the things we have and know, we base the new things we learn and create.
That’s how creativity works.
That’s how invention works.
That’s how innovation works.
There is a time before things happen, and in that time they haven’t happened. But once they’ve happened, that time is almost impossible to imagine, capture and hold onto. And why would we?
Well. Because that’s where things we cherish or benefit from got created.
Because that’s where everything gets created. In the time just before it was.
How is that for pointing out the obvious?
And yet, it matters. For humanity and for our own little subset of it.
Because our industry has been talking about innovation for almost two decades. About our enthusiasm for creating the things that don’t yet exist. About our commitment to the folks that make those things happen.
Our industry has embraced the light bulb as a symbol of its innovation activities not because it shines bright. Not because light symbolises progress. Not even because lightbulbs come on over the heads of cartoons when they have good ideas. Nope. It’s because the light bulb didn’t come easy. Edison is reputed to have failed 1,000 times before he succeeded. And also – and this is as important – Edison wasn’t the only one working towards the light bulb at that time. Both of those things are important, and as an industry, we learned them. Innovation is non-linear. And it’s a team sport.
Now we have to do three things. And they are bloody hard.
The first is, we have to imagine it. Whatever it is we are doing that wasn’t done before.
The second is, we have to build it. This new thing we imagined. Test it. Make sure that it is possible and useful and usable. Not all of those things lead into each other seamlessly.
And then we need to story-tell it.
Stay with me.
First, imagining it.
It’s not easy, what Albert von Szent-Györgyi describes as ‘seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought’.
When you hear such an idea (in life or at work), something amazing happens inside your brain. It goes aaaaaah. It fizzles. A part of you goes ‘man that’s so cool’. And another goes ‘how did you even think about this?’ And you lean forward and say ‘tell me more’.
I am not this person, by the way. The person that imagines the thing. I am the person who leans forward and says ‘tell me more’.
I am the person who feels the synapses of my brain going fzzzzt. I am the person who sees the idea and goes…man. You looked at what I was looking at and saw something I wasn’t able to see.
How did you do that. Tell me more.
These people, they are rare.
Do you have one in your team? If you have to pause and think I would say you don’t. And you won’t get far without them. You will keep looking at things and seeing what you see and there’s nothing wrong with that. But that is not what you said we were here to do, so.
Finding the imagineers is not easy.
But that’s the exam question. This is the way. If you want to be part of the creative force that makes things happen that were not there before you made them happen, you need to be able to imagine them.
But that is not in itself enough.
To go boldly forth
Your imagineer needs a friend.
Someone with the courage and fire power to explore different intellectual possibilities in an environment that isn’t quite there yet.
Imagination is not their superpower. Execution is.
But executing against a dream and not a blueprint is magic of a kind and as rare as the ability to imagine it. Some folks have both. Most have neither. Some have a bit of each. Find them. Pair them. Protect them.
I dimly remember someone explaining to me years ago the difference between a geek and a nerd. One brings a single-interest kind of intensity, the other exhibits a generally deplored bookishness and curiosity about almost everything. I remember thinking I would never reliably remember which is which with the slight relief that it didn’t much matter: I was enough of both to accept the label and not enough of either to care to get it right.
You need a bit of both.
A lot of both, in order to take the thing you imagined and pummel it into a shape that works. It may happen on the first attempt. It may happen on the 1,000th. It may take a few folks working at it from different angles.
It may take a lot of false starts. It may take asking so many questions about why and how that the thing we end up with isn’t quite the thing we started out to do.
And that needs to be ok.
Do you know who these people are in your team?
I am a bit of that, I will confess. Enough to be useful. Enough to cause some damage. Not, in myself, enough. But I know who my rain makers are around me. Do you?
Because, you got it, if you want to be part of the human creative surge that makes things happen that didn’t exist before you came along, you need to be able to imagine them and you need to be able to build them.
And you don’t need to do that alone. The image of the solitary inventor going slowly mad in a cluttered laboratory is thankfully not how human endeavour works.
You don’t need to be able to do it all yourself, and that’s a relief because let’s face it, it’s hard. And doing it alone makes it harder.
Imagining things is hard.
Building, testing, adjusting is hard.
Imagining intellectual alternatives to what is solidly real in front of you is hard. And daunting.
Our ancestors were burnt alive for less.
Heresy and blasphemy and witchcraft.
Not in our snazzy offices, silly, I hear you say.
Are you sure?
Are you absolutely certain that established wisdom and the comfort of safely shuffling down the road to mediocrity don’t create an unassailable reality that locks in perceptions and erects obstacles and finds reasons why things won’t work, things can wait, proof points aren’t enough?
I thought so.
So your third and final friend for the journey is the storyteller.
Someone who may not be able to imagine it themselves but, now you’ve told them, they see it in front of them clear as day and can bring it to life for others.
Someone who may not be able to build it all themselves but they get the journey, the reversals, the three-steps-backwards-to-go-forward, the things we need to test before we can test the thing we need to prove.
They get what we need to do.
And they can explain it. To those whose help you need. To those whose patience you may be testing. For those you need to say yes, to not say no or to just say nothing for a moment.
A storyteller has a job to do, says Camilla Gibb. To tell stories that make us knowable to others.
And if you are going to create something that didn’t exist before and now it does, you need the thing and the reasons why to be knowable to folks. You need the thing you imagined, and the road you took, and the reasons why, to be knowable to people. So they come on the journey with you. So they let you go on the journey. So they allow the thing you are doing to exist and not just be a thing that never was.
You need someone to imagine it. You need someone to build it. You need someone to story-tell it.
Which is just as well for me. Because I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t have what it takes to come on the journey. And I may not be able to imagine it. And I am not the best at building it. But I have a heart filled with childish wonder for all the things that didn’t exist in the time before they existed.
And I am burning with the wish to tell you all about the time before things happened. And what happened next.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!