The 6 Questions That Lead To New Innovations

Autodesk’s Innovation Genome Project tried to quantify what worked about the 1,000 greatest innovations of all time. With that data in hand, the company then turned to what needs innovation today: building with sustainable materials.

It is often said that innovation is at the core of sustainability, but turning that abstract idea into action isn’t always easy. How do true innovators actually make the leap from status quo to full-on disruption?

First, a definition. Innovation doesn’t necessarily entail creating something new. It’s not the same as invention. Rather, innovation usually involves a fresh perspective on something that already exists--taking an idea, a technology, or a material (or aggregating several) and then considering how their use can create a positive impact in a new and better way. The process of making this leap is often scary, and requires a certain amount of gumption, as well as copious amounts of leadership, entrepreneurialism, and good design.

Autodesk’s interest in discovering how history’s greatest innovators worked their magic is obvious (the company develops design, engineering, and entertainment software), and the application of innovation to sustainability is even more critical for us. That’s why my colleague Bill O’Connor began researching the 1,000 greatest innovations of all time last spring. O’Connor called the investigation the Innovation Genome Project. The goal was to discover and codify patterns and practices that people could apply to their day-to-day work to be truly innovative.

As O’Connor worked with a team of MBAs from Hult International Business School to review the first 100 innovations, they quickly identified six questions that famous innovators have consistently asked and answered to generate ideas that can lead to new innovations.

These six innovation questions are:

  • What could I look at in a new way? (Steve Jobs looked at the computer in a new way, leading to the Mac and the personal computer revolution.)
  • What could I use in a new way? (Paleolithic humans turned fire from a scourge into a means of cooking, heat, light, and protection.)
  • What could I recontextualize in space or time? (The Sumerians moved language from spoken to written form, expanding its power and reach.)
  • What could I connect in a new way? (Thomas Edison connected the light bulb to the electrical grid, leading to electrified cities.)
  • What could I change, in terms of design or performance? (Nearly 3 million years ago, the world’s first “innovator” transformed a simple rock into a stone hand-axe.)
  • What could I create that is truly new? (In 1776, American colonists created the first “intentional” nation, based on specific abstract principles.)

So my team and I tried it. We used these six questions to come up with software that would solve a problem we had heard over and over again--that of customers telling us that they’d like to design using sustainable materials, but they couldn’t justify the extra expense. Because the materials were more “sustainable,” they assumed that they were more expensive.

The third question was our catalyst. What could we recontextualize in space or time? That question led us to two more that put us on the right track: Why do all the existing design tools look at environmental impact but not cost? Whom can we bring in to create a tool that understands both?

The perfect partner to help us solve this problem was Granta Design, a materials information and technology company. They helped us develop the Eco Materials Advisor feature which we released last spring. With Granta’s materials expertise and their access to the best raw materials cost and availability data, we created a tool that illuminates both the environmental and financial costs of various materials, which can have surprising results. A silicone grip, for example, might actually make more environmental sense than a natural latex grip that requires almost 100 gallons of water to form and manufacture.

Sustainability problem-solving doesn’t need to be about paying for more responsible products; it just takes a few innovative questions to make it work.

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  • Bill Oconnor

    Thanks! And I'd you're interested in collaborating on implementation, let me know and we can set it up. I'm interested in seeing how different people/teams implement in different circumstances.

  • Wrongmartin

    Innovation, is basically taking the technology of the day and making it useful.
    Inventers invent  (light bulb) But if we were all blind ,What is the need?
    Ron , Just Someone who was passing through

  • JimSnell

    Have to call BS here.  And this might really be a problem of having MBA trying to figure out innovation.

    Steve Jobs did not look all over trying figure out  "what could I look at in a new way?"  He was interested in computers, his interest took him there and - supremely luckily - his buddy Steve Wozniak turned out to be the geek who could translate some of Jobs ideas about what could be done with computers into reality.  In fact, what Jobs really did was to ask: how could this thing that only corporations can afford because they're so insanely expensive, be changed totally, shrunken and put in the hands of regular people?

    "What could I use in a new way?"  Not innovative either.  Sure, you could use toilet paper as a paper towel, but it doesn't work.  A new use for something is just a new use for something - a long way from an innovation.

    "What could I recontextualize in space or time?"  What kind of buzzword BS is this?  It means nothing.  If it did, maybe there'd be some examples of something a little more recent than the ancient Sumerians.

    "What could I connect in a new way?"  Really?  Did Edison have some other choice to make a light bulb work other than connecting it to electricity?  And oh, btw, Edison lobbied against the electrical grid we have now since he backed Direct Current and we use Alternating Current because it works across long distances.  No, he didn't even do what you cited in your example.

    Yes, changing something design to make it work better is an innovation. Creating something completely new is actually beyond innovation - it's invention.  But, I'll give you that one.

    And not surprisingly, you also came up with the wrong take-away.  You didn't solve a problem, you outsourced to someone who could.


  • Bill Oconnor

    Hi, Jim, Bill O'Connor here, from Autodesk/Innovation Genome Project.

    I appreciate the comments, so first of all thanks for taking the time for sharing your reactions to the article, and the project.

    That said, I think you're missing the basic point of the project, which is this: I'm not trying to say that great innovators have EXPLICITLY asked these questions for all of their innovations. Generally, they have not. As you point out, innovators focus on innovating, and not developing ways to innovate. But I contend that you can look at their innovations and then ask yourself, "What questions could have been asked in this same situation that could have led to those innovations?" Once you have those questions, then--and this is the main point--you can use them YOURSELF, and for your OWN work.

    Some specific comments below...

    1. Not sure why you think that having an MBA, per se, means you can't be innovative. I know many innovative people with MBAs.

    2. I agree that Jobs didn't use the Innovation Genome questions, of course! But I do think that if you look at the specifics of his story, you can take his specific question, which you outlined, and make it more general, and more widely applicable, by viewing it as an example of asking "What could I look at in a different way?"

    3. Re: the "Use in a new way" and "Recontextualize" questions, all I can say is that there are literally dozens of examples of both questions among the 100 innovations we've already reviewed, and that there will be hundreds of examples of each once we look at the full 1,000 innovations.

    4. Re: Edison, first of all, I know the DC/AC story, and it doesn't change my basic point, which is that YOU, TODAY, can use the innovation question, "What can I connect in a new way?" to make your own work more innovative. The historical stuff isn't the point here (although I know it, and know that it's important to get it right); no, the point here is to discover the "mental moves" that great inventors like Edison used,and then to use those same moves yourself.
    5. And finally, I disagree when you say we didn't solve the problem, but only outsourced it. When we partnered with Granta, we each brought skills and information that the other didn't have, and through that connection, we added a lot of value for our customers. Which is the whole point.So I understand your problems with this article, but I hope I've cleared up at least most of them.If not, please let me know, because the genome project is still less than a year old, and tough criticism like this is going to help me make it stronger.My final thought would be, I have seen these questions work wonders on very complex problems, and I'll bet that if you tried them sometime, they could possibly work for you.Let me know if that is the case, or not, as well.Thanks, Cheers, Bill O'Connor

  • aurie

    Dear Sarah, first of all let me congratulate you for such an interesting article. I hope you don't mind but I have translate it in spanish so the people I work for would be able to understand it.
    Cheers X

  • HaroldIT

    Not to be a total nerd here, but it was actually Tesla who connected the light bulb to the electrical grid. Edison's grid if you want to call it that was DC and very weak.

  • Guest

    : As a phrase, yes, the word "new" is redundant. But since this article contrasts previous and future innovations, I would think the answer is no.

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