Innovation: tinkering, failing & imagining

I like this column by Nicholas Taleb. I haven’t read his book (The Black Swan) but now I think I might.

I’m more and more convinced that this ineffable activity called “innovation” is merely the story we user after the fact, to help ourselves feel like we understand what happened to bring that innovation about. But, much like the faces we think we see in the chaos of clouds, these explanations are merely comfortable fictions that allow us to feel we’re in control of the outcome. When, in fact, success so often comes from trying and failing, even playing, until the law of averages and random inspiration collide to create something new. The trick is making sure the conditions are ideal for people to fail over and over, until imagination stumbles upon insight.

You Can’t Predict Who Will Change The World –

It is high time to recognize that we humans are far better at doing than understanding, and better at tinkering than inventing. But we don’t know it. We truly live under the illusion of order, believing that planning and forecasting are possible. We are scared of the random, yet we live from its fruits. We are so scared of the random that we create disciplines that try to make sense of the past–but we ultimately fail to understand it, just as we fail to see the future. … We need more tinkering: uninhibited, aggressive, proud tinkering. We need to make our own luck. We can be scared and worried about the future, or we can look at it as a collection of happy surprises that lie outside the path of our imagination.

He rails against the wrong-headed approach factory-style standardization for learning and doing. He doesn’t name them outright, but I suspect No Child Left Behind and Six Sigma are targets.

Caveat: the column does tend to oversimplify a few things, such as describing whole cultures as non-inventive instruction-following drones, but that may just be part of the polemic. There’s more good stuff than ill, though.

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at

4 thoughts on “Innovation: tinkering, failing & imagining”

  1. Hey there,
    I get where you’re coming from but I disagree with your conclusion. I think that often the problem is that people confuse innovation with ideas and invention. These are vastly different activities.
    Can you develop an innovation strategy? Definitely. Innovation is a process. Can you develop a strategy for coming up with ideas. Probably. Will they be great ideas? Well, now that’s the challenge!

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