Sunday 19 July 2020

Innovation Stories 1 - The Spelling Test

One of the great myths of innovation is that you need to be some kind of genius to come up with great ideas, however nothing could be further from the truth. In this post I'll share the first of two real life stories where kids have displayed amazing levels of ingenuity and lateral thinking. Each story also perfectly demonstrates an important principle of innovation - in the case of this first story - that Innovation Loves Constraints.

Innovation Loves Constraints

One of Burkus's 10 "Myths of Innovation" that I wrote about in my post "A principled approach to innovation" is that innovation is inhibited by constraints. Burkus successfully argued in his book "The Myths of Creativity" that in actual fact Innovation can result from trying to work with constraints. It is in overcoming constraints that some of the most ingenious and creative thinking is brought to bear, which simply wouldn't be necessary given unlimited capability, time or resources.

This story, a memorable event from my childhood, shows that an acute awareness of your personal constraints can prompt ingenious thinking from the unlikeliest of sources.

The Dictionary Test

When I was about 7 years old my class teacher decided to play a spelling game with the class. She took out a large dictionary from the bookshelf and explained that she was going to ask each of us to spell a word. To choose the word to spell we would play a game

  • Firstly we would choose a number between 1 and about 400 - this would be the page from the dictionary from which our word would be chosen
  • Secondly we would choose a number between 1 and 2 - this would be the column from the page from which our word would come
  • Thirdly we would choose a number from 1 to about 20 - this would be the position of the word in the column

Each child showed a mix of excitement or apprehension. While playing a game was exciting, we all knew that the dictionary contained a whole plethora or words that we didn't have a clue how to spell, like "plethora" for example.

As the teacher went to each child in turn the excitement mounted as we waited to hear what word we would have to spell. Each child's word was associated with groans (if it was easy) or gasps (if it was a tricky one), and in this way most of the class had their turn. Then the teacher moved on to Samuel.

Victory from the Jaws of Defeat

Samuel was a farmer's son and was not in any way academically gifted. It's safe to say his skills lay in other areas (I believe he now runs a successful farm) and he would be the first to admit that spelling wasn't his strong point. Samuel was facing a serious resource constraint - he had a much lower number of words in the dictionary he knew how to spell than anyone else in the class. Whilst I'm sure there was no cruelty in it, a distinct hush descended from the rest of the class when Samuel's name was called, as we all waited with baited breath to see what was going to happen.

The teacher asked Samuel for his page number

Samuel: "One"

At this point a murmur spread around the class. No-one had gone with page one, we all twigged that at least he knew that the first letter was definitely going to be 'A'. The teacher asked for his column number


Interesting...was that a smile we could see forming at the side of the teacher's mouth. The teacher asked for Samuel's word number


The teacher's face was now a full beaming smile

'Samuel - how do you spell "a"'

and like the victorious golfer knocking a winning putt from 3 inches Samuel replied


The room exploded. The kids were laughing and cheering, the teacher was laughing. Those kids whose numbers had thrown up "phsychoanalysis" level words were sitting head in hands in disbelief that 'even' Samuel had succeeded where they had failed.

In one simple, glorious action Samuel had ably demonstrated the relationship between innovation and constraints. The rest of the class had a fair chance of getting a word we knew so didn't bother to think in other ways about the problem. Samuel knew he had a very slim chance of getting a word he could spell. Rather than worrying about all the words he didn't know, he shifted his focus laterally to whether he could somehow make sure he got one he did. The solution came to him in inspirational fashion.

With over 20 years of working in software development behind me I still think this is one of the smartest demonstrations of lateral thinking I've ever seen, hat's off to Samuel he won the day that day, and the respect of 20 kids forever.

The Imitation Game

Along with the positive message around not letting your constraints inhibit your creativity, there's also a cautionary lesson in this tale, demonstrated by a boy we'll call Kevin.

Once the hubbub had died down in the class the teacher moved on to Kevin, who was the boy sitting next to Samuel.

The teacher asked Kevin what numbers he wanted

'One, One, Two'

Kevin smugly announced, folding his arms like he'd won the 'second smartest kid in the room' award.

'OK Kevin - how do you spell "Aardvark"'

And there lies another principle of innovation. Imitating other people's ideas only works if you deliver the same value as the original, otherwise you just end up looking foolish.

In my next post I'll share another story of ingenious and downright sneaky innovation from a child who very ably demonstrated that a good chunk of innovation comes from being able to see an opportunity that others don't.

Main photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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