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    Entries in research and development (1)

    Wednesday
    Sep052012

    Esotericism vs. Innovation?

    image: Ryan Holst - flickr 

    I was part of a discussion of innovation strategies recently.  Aside from the usual buzz worthy placations that sound totally reasonable and make managers everywhere nod their heads in self-congratulatory approval, the conversation touched on a number of very interesting areas that get at the heart of true innovation.  Among those many exchanges that would be fun to dissect here, one of them was just screaming for further examination.

     ...having to be “broadly applicable” and “not so esoteric.”

    I’d like to focus on the point when the discussion turned to describing the general purpose of research and development initiatives (R&D).  In answer to a question I had, a certain care was taken to describe R&D as having to be “broadly applicable” and “not so esoteric.”  This interested me specifically because of the different viewpoints one could take on the comment itself.  To set the stage, those who know me and follow some of my material know that I believe we are living through a very significant period in human history.  My view on this follows the logic presented in many others’ offerings on the topic from the online archives of Fast Company and TED to luminaries in the design community (like Ian Mirlin at Zero Gravity Thinking) to the other far flung corners of the blogosphere (shout out to my new friend, Chris Jones at The Cambrian Cloud).  Actually you could spend days combing through the excellent literature on the subject via the internet, newsletters, and books. (I know because I have). So, needless to say, there is a growing legion of believers in the extremely transitory nature of our time in history.  This means that those who thrive off change will succeed, and those who don’t, simply won’t.  This is applicable from individuals all the way up to global corporations. 

    Just for fun, I thought I would look up the formal definition of the word “esoteric.”

    Here is what I found:

    es·o·ter·ic

    adj \ˌe-sə-ˈter-ik, -ˈte-rik\

    Definition of ESOTERIC

    1. a : designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone <a body of esoteric legal doctrine — B. N. Cardozo> b : requiring or exhibiting knowledge that is restricted to a small group <esoteric terminology>; broadly : difficult to understand <esoteric subjects>
    2. a : limited to a small circle <engaging in esoteric pursuits> b : private, confidential <an esoteric purpose>
    3. of special, rare, or unusual interest <esoteric building materials>

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/esoteric

    In my view, the majority of that definition could easily apply to the current paradigm (or paradigm shift).  Not because what we’re talking about is some sort of secret knowledge or something beyond the comprehension of mere mortals, but because it defines the common starting point for all efforts at innovation.  Therefore, I believe it should be imperative to not only refrain from describing the esotericism of R&D efforts as a fallibility, but readily engage in activities that might well be considered such.  These are precisely the areas that will produce the “next big thing.”  Certainly, combining existing widespread technologies and processes is innovative and can deliver something similar, but increasingly that lofty goal will require a long, esoteric reach to keep up with the curve. 

    True innovation is esoteric by nature.

    Entrepreneurs and organizations must be prepared to bet big and educate themselves at the frontier of all things in the knowledge economy.  I don’t mean bet big in the sense of money spent, I mean bet big in terms of your boundary of possibilities.  Entertain those thoughts that might, at first blush, seem too esoteric to waste your time with.  True innovation is esoteric by nature.  The time we are living in is serving as something of a great equalizer when it comes to this.  The sheer number of people who finally have access to transformative knowledge, when leveraged with the rapid onset of new technologies, will bring about equally rapid and amazing changes.  This extreme unpredictability will require those who would like to participate to become fringe learners; to live the esoteric life as they seek to make their dent in the universe.

    So live change, love change, and keep up. Don’t be a pioneer on paper, be a fringe learner.  If it’s uncomfortable and a little intimidating and people are calling it “too esoteric”…that’s a sign you’re on the right track. 

    The world is poised to reward that kind of initiative like never before in history.