Great ideas don't come out of thin air. They come from the conflicting needs and desires of real people. They come from problems that "can't be solved" and ideas that shouldn't work together.
Innovation is often a story of struggle.
Creativity is often found in conflict within and without. Struggle is a sign that you're moving towards something better. Every failure tells you what is and isn't working. Every bad idea makes new problems clear and opens the path to new solutions.
Even when creatively working with others, conflict and struggle are good if they are managed properly. A clash of ideas and ideology has the potential to create new and better syntheses if people are willing to open up to the potential that both sides might be wrong.
The story of innovation is often found in the solutions to conflicts.
The Story of Great Ideas
Jeffrey Katzenberg, the co-founder and former CEO of Dreamworks, said during a talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2018 that every great idea is a great story.
Every good story has some sort of central conflict. Ideologies go into battle and one proves itself in victory. People fight with each other. People suffer.
When it comes to stories, it appears that only suffering interests us.
This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but imagine a movie where everyone sits around having a pleasant tea-time conversation for two hours. The theater would be empty by the time the credits roll.
Researcher Greg Satell writes in the Harvard Business Review that innovation is not really about ideas, but about solving problems. The conflict in the story of innovation is the struggle to find and solve a problem.
The story of innovation is the inventor working night after night in a dingy basement until finally, the solution reveals itself in a moment of sudden insight, a moment of insight that had been fermenting through years of toil.
The story of creativity is the artist throwing idea after idea at their canvas until finally, some new, workable combination reveals itself.
Every Good Creative Story Has Conflict
Sometimes great innovation comes from actual, real-world conflict. Motorola had its first big success in the early years of the Second World War by manufacturing the world's first successful wireless handheld two-way radio. Chief engineer Don Mitchell had seen the possibility of war coming years before, and he saw the opportunity for his company to solve the problem of battlefield communication.
Innovative ideas often seem obvious in hindsight, but what makes great ideas so great is that the innovative person or team behind them had both the combination of technical know-how to tackle the problem and the foresight to look at the problem in the right way.
Figuring out how to frame the problem is sometimes just as important as figuring out how to solve it.
Ask yourself what the story of the problem your facing is.
Who are the protagonists, and what are the problems they face?
What obstacles are getting in the way of a solution?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that creative problems usually come from three sources: general life experience, conflicts within industry and academia, and from the pressures of work(such as the stresses of making a profit.)
Creativity and innovation thrive on the managed conflict of ideas that gradually reveal the real problems that lie under the surface, and Csikszentmihalyi says that great ideas often come from conflicts, "suggested by the 'state of the art.'" That is, ways in which ideas at the forefront of an industry often seem to contradict each other.
While many people in the army may have been thinking in terms of how to make wired communication better, Don Mitchell's broader experience showed him that the problem was not how to make wired communication better, but how to replace it.
The story of innovation won't go anywhere without conflict.
How to Find Creative Solutions in Conflict
If you're working alone, make sure to seek out critical opinions of your work and periodically question your own assumptions. This is often hard.
To get to the bottom of problems (and find their solutions) a little questioning and struggle are necessary, even if it conflicts with the ease of doing things the way you've always done them.
Well-structured teams often innovate more quickly than individuals, not just because there are more people to do more work, but because everyone can question each other's underlying assumptions. Its often easier for someone to point out problems when they haven't spent years doing things the same way. For example, in many startups, coders and designers dislike working together, but their interaction and conflict (as long as managers keep it cordial) helps move both toward more innovative solutions.
Don't be afraid to tackle the big problems.
Don't be afraid of unorthodox solutions.
You'll never move ahead if you do what everyone else is doing. You'll never gain an advantage over the competition by copying them.
You have to take the risk on struggling against conventional wisdom to be truly innovative and creative. You have to make yourself into the story of the upstart innovator struggling against convention, the protagonist that ends the conflict!