The Surprising Secret to Innovation

Anyone who’s had a blazing insight in the shower or leaped ahead at work after a languorous vacation recognizes that sometimes, the path to creative insight isn’t a direct line. On the surface, it might even look random or wasteful – but that process is often necessary for real innovation. That’s the view of Michael Schrage of MIT’s Center for Digital Business and the author of Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate. With a nod to technology theorist George Gilder, Schrage told me in a recent podcast interview, “In the early days of a technology, technology is expensive – so you had to write the most elegant, dense, and precise software…The key point is that you can’t afford waste when things are expensive. But what happens when memory is cheap?”

The cost of memory and bandwidth has declined steeply, meaning “you don’t have to be as efficient,” says Schrage. “You can take shortcuts, design things that are a little inefficient. You can afford to waste the resources of a technology that’s now cheap…and the virtual freedom of these technologies means that you can play with all manner of ideas.” That might include building tangible models (3-D printing is now available at rapidly decreasing price points) or writing code for new software and new apps (globalization means someone on Elance will do it for latte money). It might mean creating a service that allows people to upload videos and store them for free, just because you can, and perhaps one day you’ll make money on it. (That would be the theory behind YouTube.)

This sense of play – and the possibilities it raises – extends to human relationships, as well, says Schrage. Architects have long tried to design offices that enhance creative potential and opportunities for intermingling. But now the possibilities are limitless, thanks to online vehicles from Facebook to Yammer. The real question, he says, is “Do you want to collaborate? Do you see yourself as someone who wants to exchange value in a transactional way – ‘I’ll give you this if you’ll give me that’ – or is your view ‘No, let’s build new value together’?”

Finding ways to truly collaborate takes time. You have to build trusting relationships, identify real needs in the marketplace, and determine how you can best meet them – together. The process may not be linear. But “if you’re the kind of child or adult that recognizes…some of the most valuable lessons, the most valuable insights, the greatest pleasure you got was when you played around, then you’ll get it immediately.” Says Schrage, “In the economics of play, of messing around – exploration in these digital and virtual environments favor us. We don’t have to conserve everything; we can play with a multiplicity of options.”

How do you harness your creativity? Do you feel waste can be productive? What are your techniques to enhance collaboration?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of the forthcoming Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.