Innovation is like Water

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” – Bruce Lee

I recently attended Cooperista Andrew Kaufteil’s talk: “Work Culture Masala: 9 Keys to Innovation” at Agile India 2017 in Bangalore. He spoke about nine elements needed for making a perfect cup of chai as metaphors for building a business culture of innovation. For example, he shared that ginger was an essential element of chai, adding a pungent jolt to the beverage, and described how it represented candor. His talk inspired me to think about an additional tenth ingredient: water. 

In the context of design and innovation, water represents fluidity and formlessness. The spark of inspiration — that ingenious new idea — is merely a starting point. Be it the catchy riff that jumps into the composer’s mind or a mobile app idea that strikes an entrepreneur, it takes a lot of research ideation, testing, and iteration before an idea manifests into a ship-worthy and profitable product. Often, through that process, the end product becomes something completely different from the initial idea. And that can be a very a good thing. 

Successful innovators are few and far between because most people make their ideas too solid. ‘I thought of this, I own it, so this is the form it should go out in,’ is how most people think. This impulse makes product owners resist input that stretches beyond their mental boundaries. Success often lies in your ability to see beyond these.

The story of Kutol Products shows you just how this can happen. In the 1950’s, Kutol offered a wall cleaning paste that was not selling well, and the company was headed for bankruptcy. Around the same time, a nursery school teacher approached the founders. She noticed children using the paste as clay in arts and crafts projects. Kutol responded by removing the cleaning agent from the paste, and adding vibrant colors and a fresh scent. They launched the repurposed product, a modelling compound for kids, under the name ‘Play-doh.’ Over the next six decades, Kutol sold more than two billion cans of Play-doh, making it an integral part of American kids’ lives.

Ideas, designs, and products evolve and assume new shapes and forms through teamwork and constructive conflict. Convergent and divergent perspectives breathe life into the product design process. The Wright Brothers, the inventors of powered flight, debated a lot amongst themselves. And to make sure the arguments were not constrained by biases, they often switched sides. Even when they failed to come to an agreement, they found their opinions had changed from where they had started.

Allow your ideas to take other forms. Take a “yes, and” approach and build on others’ ideas. From this fluidity will emerge great new things.

A culture of innovation helped Zoho build more than thirty five products in an industry where most businesses struggle for a second one. Check them out here.

If you want to learn methods for generating breakthrough ideas, check out Cooper’s Leading Creative Ideation workshop.

Read how designers at Cooper work together with fluidity using pair design.

Hari Narayanan

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