The Single Greatest Way To Discover Innovation

Warning: I have no scientific research to back up the theory I’m about to ponder, but I would love to hear your thoughts after/if you complete reading this post.

I don’t really recall the first time I discovered this, but it’s happened enough that I can’t deny the powerful tool it is.

focus When I am looking for inspiration for my writing or simply trying to connect the dots to make something whole, I fall back on a process I’ve come to call monochromatic reading. (Maybe there’s a research study on this somewhere and Nobel Prize winning psychologist who’s got an even fancier name, but that’s my term)

Here’s the idea behind this. Whenever I am trying to get inspired, original or innovative in my thoughts to add to a presentation, blog post, article, product, service or book, I spend a fair amount of time reading. No surprise there, everyone does that, but what I’ve found is that some of the best ideas come from unrelated texts – if I know how to read them.

What I do is come up with one single topic – business growth, referrals, persuasion – whatever I am trying to work on – and I pick up books that are not related to the topic and read through them quickly looking only for ideas that relate to or parallel my subject. So, if I doing a piece on business growth, I might actually find some incredibly innovative ideas in a book about how bees build colonies. (Actually nature works are some of the best) The key to this is the single or monochromatic focus while I read.

The original ideas that spring from this process are mind-blowing. If I’m ever stuck, this is one of the greatest ways to get unstuck and crystal clear about what I should write or say. The funny thing is, it doesn’t really seem to matter what the topic of the book is. When you read it with a chosen focus in mind, ideas just turn up to serve this focus. I’ve done it with fiction and non-fiction works alike. Of course this idea doesn’t apply only to books or written work. The greatest opportunity for innovation usually comes from outside your industry as well.

I share this here today because it’s something that puzzles and marvels me and it’s definitely something that can help marketers and business owners everywhere, but I would also love to get your input on this – have you experienced this phenomenon as well, let’s discuss it here? If not, give it a try and share this idea with anyone looking for inspiration.

Image credit: liber

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  • Aim It Media

    Well I can say that the same thing happens for me and I'm curious if anyone has done any research on it. I keep a little flip notebook, pen and highlighter by me when I'm reading for this very reason (well actually, I try to always have them handy just in case I get ANY idea floating through my head).

    It's fascinating what connections the brain makes while you're letting something “simmer” in your subconscious.

  • reubenrail

    That's a great tip John.

    I don't know if there is some Nobel winning scientist shaking his fist at your monochromatic reading term, but there is a great book called “The Medici Effect” which explores what the author calls intersectional innovations. I think your concept is related to it, and you might enjoy the read (if you haven't already read it).

  • ducttape

    Awesome – love it – off to Kindle store right now!

  • lisamariemary

    What a really cool idea, John! I'm definitely going to try it and if I have anything 'report-worthy' – I'll come back and let you know! I was staring a blank screen yesterday, but, I wasn't even sure what topic I wanted to conquer, so I'm not sure how I could've used your idea yesterday – I know there must be a way, though!

  • Erica M Lee

    great tip especially for a young new marketer such as myself. I'm def. starring this on my google reader and saving it so i can come back to it again! thanks!

  • inventivelinks

    hello, enjoyed this post! i'm almost done reading a 2000 (but still relevant) book 'the five faces of genius' about the path to innovation or creativity. this monochromatic reading technique reminds me of 'the alchemist' face, whose natural inclination is to connect domains and build ideas from seemingly unelated areas.

  • Mel Bost

    I too have experienced this phenomenon over the past several years and began researching it about two years ago. I believe if you look at the work that Dean Roger Martin has done at The Rotman School of Management at The University of Toronto labeled “Integrative Thinking,” you will all find the answers.

    Roger Martin studied how successful people in many disciplines think about their day to day activities and their decisions and he came to the conclusion that there was an alternative to “Conventional Thinking” that he termed “Integrative Thinking.” I won't press on with the details because you can read them on the Rotman School site but, suffice it to say that, everyone has his own “picture” of an event or a situation. Each of us has a different picture. When we go to reconcile what we see versus what others see and apply “Conventional Thinking,” we often seek compromises in the solution to reconcile the differences. But, an “Integrative Thinker” does four things differently:
    1. He takes into account morre salient features of the event or situtiaon being viewed;
    2. He seekks multi-dimentional and non-linear causality for the situation;
    3. He takes a holistic and integrative view of the entire situation which corresponds to your observation that you look for many different pieces of the puzzle;
    4. He searches for creative resolution of the tensions which means a win-win solution.

    This thinking technique was embraced by A.G. Lafley at P&G when he was CEO and resulted in he and Ram Charan publishing their book on “Game Changer.” They saw the impact on innovation.

    Now Roger Martin and a colleague Helen Fraser at U Toronto are off exploring the extension of “Integrative Thinking” which is “Design Thinking,” a discipline which has guided many business strategies of Consumer Products companies. See the IDEO website.

    Hope this helps. It really brought the light to me.

    Cletus M. Bost, Jr. (Mel Bost)

  • ducttape

    Some tweets coming in on this I wanted to add

    @DylanFedy The name for a related idea: “biomimicry” TEDtalk on how nature influences the products & systems we build

    @Renee_Innosight Very interesting variation on “force-fit” creativity tool… RT @ducttape: My secret innovation discovery device –

  • ducttape

    One more tweet

    @snasco Discovering Innovation and @reubenrail brings up “Intersectonal innovation” from Medici Effect. LOVE IT!

  • Site O Rific

    I do the same thing with design and even music and art. I call it cross- pollination. You could also from an intentional perspective call it Integral.

  • frogdog

    Absolutely spot on, John. As a developer and innovator, I often go wash dishes, chop wood, work on cars, read different texts, whatever… to solve problems and get perspective on what I'm working on at the time. Whereas conventional education/approach dictates “do this and that will happen,” I have found my best insights come from letting my mind “play” while I do common chores, and something totally unrelated to what I'm working on. It's like my mind is seeking parallels and trying to extract meaning all the time, and when I stop and let it go into back-burner mode, that's when the magic happens. I wish it was something I could formalize and make a habit of; it would be very useful!

    I like all the terms listed, integrative thinking, cross-pollination, monochromatic research, and so on. Great post!

  • jjs572003

    Very interesting and something I do as well. To expand on your statement “nature works are some of the best” check out the idea of “biomimicry”… it's the thought that our human products/services/infrastructure/etc could be designed and influenced in part by what already exists in nature… i.e. velcro, gecko tape, etc… here's an interesting link but a quick google will find all sorts of goodies:

  • deniseleeyohn

    i've definitely experienced this myself on a broad level with blogging — when i started blogging 18 months ago, i was afraid i would quickly run out of things to write about, but i've discovered that having my blog on my mind at all times helps me see connections to my topic in practically every other area of my life — i love how my brain, now focused, is able to see meaning in so many things — perhaps that's why they call it in-sight??

  • Paul

    Hey John…that concept seems similar to the phenomenon that happens when you are, say…looking to buy a new car and you zero in on a particular make/model…and all of a sudden you see them all over the place. You mind is a wonderful tool…and the power of suggestion, when used properly, can yield tremendous results

  • namejoshualomotey

    I shall be trying this technique out

  • Ricardo Beck Giuliani

    I agree and think that is powerful; it's like when you stop to think about the problem and do something else… and sometimes the answer “pop out” in your face!

    I like listening to music too, it helps to get the crazy connections all together. Very good post. Thanks


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  • Kate

    I've never seen it put so succintly, but it does ring true. My only problem is that when I read my fiction books, I generally am too engrossed in escapism to let any thoughts percolate!

  • jack

    You will love this book. I got goosebumps when I read it and found out just how similar other creative people are to me in the way they get inspiration. A MUST read.

  • Aaditya

    Sorry ..u r late…
    I am doing that for years now. 😛
    Although its great to know that the same idea converged in some other place too. 😀

  • ducttape

    Ah, but I did not say I hadn't been doing that for years – just finally wrote about it :) – glad for the converged ideas too!

  • nanross

    It never fails! Every time I'm at a social event or hanging with my family, I always find some inspiration for my blog post. My family members would say one phrase and I'm running to my notepad. Giggles!

  • Keith Jennings

    Looks like I'm late to the party on this one. But I continually experience this. I'd like to share two ideas related to this.

    First, I tend to find odd connections and ideas from trash mags like People and US Weekly. In your book, you wrote that People magazine was great for research. I showed my wife that line in your book and told her I didn't have to feel guilty any more.

    Second, and I know this sounds strange, but literary essays in those university lit journals no one but geeks like me read, are fantastic in their richness and random connections. They cover literature, history, ecology, environmental issues, etc.

    For what it's worth…

  • Joy Johnson

    Absolutely! The more diverse life experience is, the more likely one is to come up with unique solutions to problems, unique ways of looking at things, and original thoughts – especially if one practices the art of connective thinking. Since one can't live everything in the short time we're given, books round out the diversity of our experiences. It sounds very much like an example of the human mind finding that which it seeks. As a technique it would fit quite nicely into “Analogies” as discussed in Michael Michalko's “Thinkertoys” or “Connecting the Unconnected” in his “Cracking Creativity.”

  • Arthur Charles Van Wyk


    I don’t know about the monochromatic part, but reading just does it for me. It didn’t always though. By choice, I do not drive our family vehicle to work every day because the commute gives me a good 40 minutes of reading every morning.
    At first this happened with Christian books only, but recently it starts to happen with books on media, marketing and technology as well. I would read one thing and a completely unrelated concept would come out of nowhere and I’d spend a minute or two just pondering on the thought – staring blankly at the book pages. And sometimes I am in awe of the things that come to mind. I don’t always spiritualise things, but the more this happens the more I realise that God is real. These thoughts cannot just originate out of nowhere.

    An example. I was re-reading Chika Onyeane’s “Capitalist Nigger” a while back, and one morning whilst reading it just dawned on me that the word “sell” is a myth. Nobody really sells. People who think they’re in sales are really just evangelists and conduits of enough information about a product or service to enable and empower buyers to make the decision whether to buy from them or not.. or to shorten the buying decision timeline.

  • Cassie Rice

    I've never thought of doing that before. I normally just go back and forth with a coworker to get more ideas – which almost always works too. Thanks for the suggestion, I'm going to try it and see if it works for me!

  • Mel Bost

    I don't know how many readers took me seriously in my post about “Integrative Thinking.” But I do know what A.G. Lafley wrote in his book “Game Changer” and here it is:

    “There are many different ways of thinking, including linear, conceptual, inductive, deductive and integrative. For innovation, integrative thinking is more central for success. As Roger Martin (Dean I mentioned) puts it, 'an integrative thinker finds unobvious connections and patterns from a diverse set of factors. They see more things as relevant and important, such as contradictions in what customers say and what they actually do. They then bring it all together by synthesizing and translating salient information into simple insights that lead to action. Integrative thinkers are creative problem solvers because they find solutions to break the tensions of opposing ideas.''

    I think this is a framework that all readers can embrace when it comes to innovative thinking. That does not say that there is only one explanation. I merely provides a means of explaininng what one is experiencing.

    Mel Bost

  • ducttape

    I think the whole thing centers on Attention on Intention, it does seem to manifest things.

  • lainie9

    I would love some specific examples of how this works for you. I think I know what you mean, but a few examples would be terrific. Thanks!

  • karlglotzbach

    John, I think you hit on the key to the solution of idea generation, which is getting unstuck. It's hard to get unstuck when we confine ourselves to our own brains. When we look outside, we see new things. An analogy that comes to mind is proofreading. When we proof our own writing, it hard to spot the typos. But when we give a piece to a colleague to proof, they spot them immediately.

  • Hazel Edmunds

    I do something similar with my information for careers guidance practitioners since helpful “stuff” turns up in some really weird places but since I use the British Library with access to millions of sources I have to plan what I will look at fairly carefully (I'd get overwhelmed otherwise).

  • praveenben

    This phenomenon is happening in my life also. Perhaps It is the process in which universe is aligning with the passions of the individual. This is what I believe based on my experiences.

  • Backpack Blower

    Could you recommend more about mind-blowing technique?