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Empathy and Confrontation in Idea Generation

By Tojin T. Eapen

Successful innovation often involves two key factors: empathy and confrontation

Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is important in both art and science. In art, empathy with human subjects allows artists and writers to create relatable works. In science, empathy with non-human entities and abstract concepts allows investigators to understand them deeply and intuitively. The second key factor in innovation is confrontation, or the clash of ideas, perspectives, or reference frames. While empathy and confrontation may seem contradictory, both are essential for successful innovation, and one often leads to the other.

According to MIT professor Edward Roberts, innovation is the combination of invention and exploitation. Theresa Amabile defines innovation as the successful implementation of creative ideas within an organization. 

The term innovation can be seen as a portmanteau word that encapsulates its own ingredients: inspiration, novelty, value, and action. This definition suggests that innovation results from taking inspiration (i.e., an idea) that is novel and then creating value by acting on and implementing the idea. In other words, innovation is the process of transforming "inspired novelty to value in action."

Thus, we can ask two questions of any innovation: what is the novel inspiration, and how has it been acted upon, implemented or exploited to create value? In some cases, the answers to these questions are the same, such as when a new trading algorithm generates substantial profit for an investment bank. However, in other cases, the answers differ, and the inspiration step can be viewed independently of the value creation process. 

The Artist and the Scientist

The first part of innovation, coming up with a novel idea, requires the innovator to be a divergent thinker, an artist, and an "imagineer" who can dream up new and potentially useful ideas. The second, the value creation part, demands the innovator be a convergent thinker, more like a scientist, who can figure out how to implement a good idea. 

Both art and science can provide valuable insights for the innovator. The most successful scientists and artists have demonstrated the ability to both relate and reject, to concord and collide. From the artist, we can learn to empathize with people and use confrontation to generate new ideas. From the scientist, we can learn to empathize with systems and use confrontation to find solutions.

Innovation56K | Artist and Scientist

The combination of empathy and confrontation provides a strong foundation for understanding how good ideas come about and how they can be exploited. Empathy allows us to understand and relate to others, while confrontation challenges us to think critically and develop new perspectives. Together, these ingredients can help us generate and implement creative and successful ideas.

Empathy in Art, Science, and Business

Art, in all its forms, has the power to connect people and evoke emotions. In doing so, it teaches us the importance of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. When we engage with art, whether it's music, visual art, literature, or theater, we are given the opportunity to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and to see the world from a different perspective. This can help us to better understand and relate to others, and to appreciate the diversity of human experience.

As Carl Philip Emanuel Bach said, "A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must feel all the emotions that he hopes to arouse in his audience, for the revealing of his own humor will stimulate a like mood in the listener." This quote highlights the importance of the artist's own emotional investment in their work. If the artist is not truly moved by what they are creating, it is unlikely that the audience will be either. 

Many writers have also lived out their stories, drawing on their own experiences to create relatable and authentic works. Charles Dickens, the English novelist, wrote many of his novels based on his own experiences and observations. One of his most famous works, Little Dorrit, is a novel that is heavily influenced by his childhood experiences. When Dickens was 12 years old, his father was sent to debtors' prison, and Dickens, along with his family, was forced to live with him in the prison. This experience had a profound impact on Dickens and he later used it as inspiration for the novel Little Dorrit. The novel tells the story of a young girl, Amy Dorrit, who is born and raised in a debtors' prison and the struggles she faces as a result. Through the character of Amy Dorrit, Dickens captured the harsh realities and injustices of the debtors' prison system and the impact it had on families like his own. He also used the novel to highlight the social and economic issues of his time, such as poverty and class inequality.

Innovation56K | Little Dorrit

George Orwell dressed as a tramp and visited the East End of London to understand poverty and document his experiences in The Spike and Down and Out in Paris and London. Similarly, Orwell conducted sociological investigations on the lives of the working class in England, which he documented in The Road to Wigan Pier. He wrote, "I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed; to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants."

Empathy in Science

From science, we can learn the value of a deep understanding of the systems we study, often through experimentation and empirical analysis. Many successful scientists cultivate empathy from an early age by dedicating a significant amount of time to studying and learning about their chosen field. This approach allows them to gain a deep understanding and familiarity with their subject matter, which in turn enables them to make groundbreaking discoveries and contributions to their field.

One notable example of this is Carl Linneaus, a renowned botanist who is considered the father of modern taxonomy. Linneaus was deeply passionate about plants and spent much of his time studying them in his garden. He also became intimately familiar with botanical works, which helped him to develop a comprehensive understanding of plant classification and naming. This knowledge enabled him to create a system of classification, which is still widely used today and helped to establish the field of botany as a legitimate scientific discipline.

Similarly, some of the greatest artists possessed a scientific understanding of their medium, such as Leonardo da Vinci, who said, "He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast." Leonardo often experimented with pigments and plasters, as seen in his fresco The Last Supper. Some scientists, particularly pioneers in physiology and medicine, have even experimented on themselves to better understand their subject matter.

Innovation 56K | Leonardo Da Vinci

Sir Henry Head, a 19th century British neurologist known for his pioneering work on the human sensory system, was a self-experimenter. Described as a "vibrant mix between scientist and artist," Head was also an authority on Leonardo da Vinci. As he and his colleagues studied the physiological basis for sensation, they realized that patients were unable to provide accurate descriptions of their sensations. In order to better understand their experiences, Head decided to experiment on himself, cutting two cutaneous nerves on his forearm and studying the effects on sensation and pain as the nerves regenerated over the next four years. 

Developing empathy can be hard work, as exemplified by the quote famously attributed to Thomas Edison, "genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." Herbert Simon also suggested that becoming an expert requires at least 10 years of experience and access to over 50,000 pieces of information.

Empathy in Organizational Innovation

The chances of success for a new venture are often correlated with the entrepreneur's knowledge of the market and industry. In order to utilize the seven sources of innovation identified by Peter Drucker in his work Innovation and Entrepreneurship, organizations need to empathize with both human and system factors. This requires understanding existing technology and processes in order to identify process needs and changing industry structures. In order to recognize changing customer preferences, organizations must be among their customers, living and interacting with them constantly. Empathy is essential for successful innovation, both in entrepreneurs and organizations.

Innovation56K | Peter Drucker

Many organizations today recognize the importance of empathy in their operations. One approach to product development, called empathic design, encourages designers to emotionally connect with the users of the product. This approach seeks to identify latent user needs by observing customers as they use products or services. Empathic design recognizes that users may not be aware of the problems they encounter when using a product, and may be unable to envision an ideal product or service due to biases or a lack of familiarity with technology. As a result, traditional market research methods that rely on inquiry may not capture the true needs and problems of users. 

One example of a product developed through empathic design is Gillette Guard, which was created to provide an effective and low-cost shave for Indian consumers who were using double-edge razors. As part of the project, the researchers identified several unique needs in the Indian market. The development of the product involved thousands of hours of studying consumers through interviews and test shaves.

Confrontation and Ideas

Good ideas often involve a collision or confrontation, which can be natural or forced. The concept of a "collision" or "confrontation" of ideas is often cited as a key factor in the creative process and can be an effective way to generate new and innovative ideas. The human mind naturally tries to resolve conflicts or contradictions, and this process can lead to new insights and perspectives.

One example of this is the idea of "inverted vacations." The idea of a vacation is typically associated with relaxation, enjoyment, and pleasure. However, the concept of an inverted vacation turns this assumption on its head by proposing that people might actually enjoy having a miserable time while on vacation in order to appreciate the things they have when they return home. This confrontation of assumptions about what a vacation should be can lead to a novel and unexpected idea.

Innovation56K | Inverted Vacation

Many innovations have resulted from the willingness of innovators to confront prevailing beliefs. In the 19th century, Thomas Edison was one of many inventors working on developing a practical light bulb. The common approach was to use conductors with low resistance to generate high current. Edison inverted this assumption and used conductors of very high resistance for the first practical light bulb. 

At the time Edison began working on the light bulb, many inventors were trying to develop a practical and efficient electric light source. The prevailing belief was that the key to creating a successful light bulb was to use conductors with low resistance, which would allow for a high current to flow through the bulb. However, Edison took a different approach. He realized that the true problem with existing light bulb designs was that the filament, which was the part of the bulb that actually generated light, was burning out too quickly. Edison recognized that if he could find a material for the filament that could withstand the high current without burning out, he would be able to create a practical and efficient light bulb.

Innovation 56K | Thomas Edison

With this in mind, Edison began experimenting with different materials for the filament. He tried using various metals and even carbon fibers, but none of them proved to be suitable. Eventually, Edison discovered that a filament made of carbonized bamboo could withstand the high current and burn for a relatively long time. Edison also realized that in order to prolong the life of the filament, he needed to reduce the amount of current flowing through the bulb. He accomplished this by using conductors of very high resistance in the bulb's circuit. This was a key innovation, as it reduced the current flowing through the filament and allowed it to burn for many hours.

Similarly, new schools of art have emerged by confronting common notions of what art should look like. One work of art that demonstrates how confrontation can lead to new ideas is Rene Magritte's La trahison des images, with the famous words "Ceci n'est pas une Pipe." 

Magritte's "La Trahison des Images" ("The Treachery of Images") (1928-9)

By stating that the pipe depicted in the artwork is not a pipe, the painting immediately provokes us to explain the picture in a creative way. This is also representative of a heuristic tool used by product designers, who may ask whether a product can look like one thing but be something else. A useful product that emerged from this way of thinking is a Taser which resembles a mobile phone.

Incongruity in Art and Literature

Art can also teach us how to actively set up confrontations to create new and interesting themes. One powerful way to do this is by combining two or more incongruous, unrelated, or opposite ideas. Examples of this can be found in the works of the Surrealists, whose paintings often feature surprising and contradictory juxtapositions. The Surrealists were a group of artists and writers who emerged in the 1920s and sought to challenge traditional notions of art and society. They believed that the unconscious mind was a powerful source of creativity and inspiration, and they sought to tap into this by using techniques such as automatic writing and collage. One of the key elements of Surrealist art is the use of unexpected and seemingly contradictory juxtapositions. 

Innovation56K | Surrealism

These combinations often feature objects or images that would not typically be found together, and they are used to create a sense of unease or disorientation in the viewer. The Surrealist artists sought to challenge the viewer's perceptions and expectations, believing that these juxtapositions were a way to reveal hidden truths and emotions.

In literature, Sir John Tenniel's illustrations in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass also use this technique of surprise and unexpected juxtaposition. Sir Tenniel's illustrations often feature seemingly unrelated objects in the same drawing, like a rabbit playing croquet with flamingos as mallets and hedgehogs as balls. The use of these juxtapositions creates an otherworldly and dreamlike atmosphere that complements the absurdity of the story. Carroll and Tenniel use the technique of unexpected and seemingly contradictory juxtapositions to create unique and captivating characters in the Alice books. 

Characters such as the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon are prime examples of this. The Mock Turtle, for example, is a character that is half turtle and half man, which is a striking combination of two very different animals. The character is described in the book as having a face that is a mixture of a man and a turtle, making it quite striking and peculiar. In addition, he is a melancholic creature, who expresses his sadness through his singing and poetry.

John Tenniel`s illustration for Alice in Wonderland (1865)
John Tenniel`s illustration for Alice in Wonderland (1865)

The Gryphon, on the other hand, is a creature that is half eagle and half lion, again a combination of two very different animals. The gryphon is depicted as an imposing figure, with a lion's body and an eagle's head and wings, which create an unusual and striking creature. The Gryphon is also known for his wit, intelligence and unexpected insights, making it an important figure in the story.


In literature, the use of paradoxes is a powerful tool for authors to convey meaning and to provide insight into the human condition. Paradoxes are statements that seem to be self-contradictory, but upon closer examination, they reveal deeper truths. These statements often combine incongruous ideas to create a sense of surprise and to challenge the reader's assumptions.

One example of the use of paradox in literature can be found in George Orwell's "Animal Farm." The novel is a political allegory that uses the story of a group of farm animals who overthrow their human farmer to comment on the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism. One of the most famous lines in the book is "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." This statement criticizes the idea of "equality" in Stalin's communist regime, as the ruling elite, represented by the pigs, became more equal than the other animals. The statement is also highlighting how the idea of equality is often used as a pretext for oppressing others, and how those who are in power can manipulate the idea to their advantage.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a novel that is full of paradoxical statements that combine contradictory ideas for humorous effect. The novel is set during World War II, and it uses the paradoxical statements to comment on the nonsensical nature of war and the way that it can turn even the best of people into monsters. One example of this is the statement "The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him." This statement is used for comedic effect, but it also highlights the theme of the novel, which is the absurdity of war. 

Another example of the use of paradox in literature is found in Shakespeare's play "Hamlet." The character Hamlet is grappling with the question of how to avenge his father's murder, and he is torn between his desire for justice and his reluctance to take violent action. In Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet says "I must be cruel to be kind." This statement reflects Hamlet's internal conflict and highlights the difficult moral choices that he is facing. It also is a commentary on the idea that sometimes, in order to do the right thing, we must make difficult or painful choices.

Sometimes, opposite or contradictory attributes are combined in a character, as seen in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The character of Dr. Jekyll is a respected and well-respected scientist, but he also has a dark side, which manifests as the monstrous Mr. Hyde. The novel explores the idea of duality of human nature and the struggle of good versus evil.

Innovation 56K | The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The contrast between the respectable and good Dr. Jekyll and the vicious and monstrous Mr. Hyde is used to raise questions about the nature of human behavior and morality.

Contradictory Attributes

It is possible for the same object to possess different attributes depending on the context in which it is viewed. For example, a particular shade of color may appear to be one color in bright light and another color in dim light. Similarly, an object may appear to be one shape from one angle, and a completely different shape from another angle.

Illusions, such as those found in the paintings of MC Escher, can demonstrate how our perception of reality can be influenced by the angle of observation. Escher's paintings Relativity and Reptiles are both famous for their use of perspective and optical illusions to create confusing and disorienting scenes. In these paintings, the laws of physics and perspective are bent and manipulated in order to create a sense of unreality and confusion.

Innovation56K | Reimagination of MC Escher

Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote is a celebrated work of literature that is widely recognized for its wit and humor. One of the sources of this humor is the character of Alonso Quijano, who is the main protagonist of the book. Quijano, who is also known as Don Quixote, is a middle-aged man who has become obsessed with chivalric romance novels and decides to become a knight-errant himself.

Innovation56K | Don Quixote

Much of the humor in the book comes from the fact that Quijano views objects and situations differently from the other characters in the story. For example, Quijano believes that he is on a quest to right wrongs and defend the honor of his lady, Dulcinea, who is actually a peasant woman he has never met. Quijano sees windmills as giants, flocks of sheep as armies, and inns as castles, leading to a series of comical and absurd situations. This pattern of combining contradictory ideas or attributes is also seen in other works of literature, and can be a powerful way to create humor and engage the reader's imagination. 

The Choose Your Own Adventure series of books, created by Edward Packard, is a series of children's books that allow the reader to make choices that determine the outcome of the story. The books are written in the second person, with the reader being addressed as the main character, and each page of the book presents the reader with a choice to make. The reader then turns to a different page in the book depending on the choice they make, allowing them to experience different storylines and outcomes.

In business innovation, we often see similar patterns in which the combination of contradictory ideas or attributes can lead to new and innovative products or businesses. For example, the Radiobus in Milan is a transportation service that combines the convenience and personalization of a taxi with the low cost and efficiency of a bus. By offering the service of a taxi at the price of a bus, the Radiobus is able to provide an innovative and appealing transportation option to consumers. 

In 1949, Clarence Kelly Johnson, the director of Lockeed's Skunk works lab, patented the variable swept wing aircraft, which combines the attributes of a swept wing and straight wing jet fighter. In some cases, like an illusion, the attributes of a product or process can be designed to be context-dependent. For example, Southwest Airlines introduced a two-tier pricing strategy in 1972, with regular fares ranging from $20 to $26 and discounted fares on weekends and after 7 p.m. on weekdays for $13.

Confrontation by Elimination

One way to generate new ideas through confrontation is to consider whether an important component in a product or process can be eliminated. This type of confrontation can challenge our assumptions about what is necessary or essential, and can lead to new ways of thinking about a problem or opportunity.

For example, William Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair was appropriately subtitled "A Novel without a Hero", as it does not have a traditional heroic character at its center. This approach to storytelling was innovative and challenging at the time, and required the reader to think about what constitutes a hero and whether a traditional heroic figure is necessary for a story to be compelling.

Innovation56K | William Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair

Another example of this type of confrontation is Ernest Vincent Wright's novel The Gadsby, which was written in 1939 and does not contain the letter "e". This constraint required Wright to be creative and find ways to communicate his ideas and tell a story without using one of the most common letters in the English language. The result was a unique and challenging work of fiction that tested the limits of language and encouraged readers to think about the role of words and letters in storytelling.

James Dyson is a British inventor and industrial designer who is best known for his innovative products that have changed the way we think about everyday household items. One of the key features of his inventions is the elimination of certain components that are typically considered essential. One of Dyson's most famous inventions is the bagless vacuum cleaner. Traditional vacuum cleaners use bags to collect dirt and debris, but Dyson recognized that these bags can become clogged and lose suction over time. He eliminated the bag and instead used cyclonic separation, a process where dirt and debris are spun out of the air and collected in a container, to create a vacuum cleaner that maintains suction power and doesn't require the replacement of bags. This was a major breakthrough in the vacuum cleaner industry and it revolutionized the way people clean their homes.

Another example of Dyson's innovative designs that involve the elimination of essential components is the bladeless fan. Conventional fans use blades to circulate air, but Dyson realized that these blades can be dangerous and can cause injury. He eliminated the blades and instead used a process called Air Multiplier technology, which uses a combination of airflow and air pressure to create a powerful and safe fan. This technology is now used in many other consumer products.

Dell is a multinational computer technology company that was founded in 1984 by Michael Dell. One of the key elements of Dell's business strategy was its approach to distribution. Unlike its competitors at the time, Dell eliminated intermediaries in the distribution of its personal computers (PCs). This allowed the company to offer its products at a lower cost than its competitors. Traditionally, PC manufacturers sold their products through retailers and distributors, who acted as intermediaries between the manufacturer and the consumer. These intermediaries added costs to the product, such as mark-ups and logistics expenses. Dell's approach was to bypass these intermediaries and sell its products directly to consumers.

Extreme Attributes

Another way to achieve confrontation is through "extremization". In both art and literature, we can see examples of extreme attributes or characteristics being used to make something novel, interesting, or useful. In art, one notable example is the work of the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch. His paintings, such as "The Scream" and "Madonna," are known for their emotional intensity and use of bold, expressive colors. Munch's paintings are striking and powerful, and they elicit strong reactions from the viewer, which is a testament to how the use of extreme attributes can make a piece of art more impactful and memorable.

In literature, we see a similar use of extreme attributes in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels." The book is a satirical work that uses the story of a man who travels to different, fantastical lands to comment on the political and social issues of Swift's time. One of the most memorable aspects of the book is the portrayal of the miniature people of Lilliput and the giant people of Brobdingnag. These characters are an exaggeration of the sizes of human beings, and they are used to comment on the follies and virtues of humanity. The extreme size of these characters makes them interesting and memorable and it allows Swift to comment on different aspects of human nature from different perspectives.

Innovation56K | Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels

In "Gulliver's Travels" Swift also uses other examples of confrontational ideas, such as flying islands and intelligent horses. These elements further add to the fantastical and extreme nature of the story. The use of these elements help the reader to suspend their disbelief and allow them to immerse themselves in the story. This is a similar principle that can be applied in innovation.

A business model with extremized attributes such as low-cost service can be particularly effective for targeting niche markets. The low-cost airline business model is a good example of this idea in practice. Traditionally, air travel was a luxury that only a small percentage of the population could afford. However, by creating a business model that focused on providing low-cost air travel, companies such as Ryanair and Southwest Airlines have been able to target a new market of cost-conscious consumers and revolutionize the way people travel. This business model has attracted many customers who previously could not afford to fly, as well as price-sensitive customers who previously would not fly due to the high cost. Additionally, low-cost airlines also brought innovation in terms of route selection, point-to-point destinations, and online booking options. These extremized attributes made the service more novel, interesting and useful for specific niche markets.

Unusual Combinations

One way that science has tested hypotheses is through experiments. Unusual combinations have often led to remarkable results, with several important medical drugs being discovered this way. The Swiss scientist Fritz Zwicky developed the method of morphological analysis, a system for setting up dynamic confrontations that could provide solutions to scientific problems. Zwicky applied this method to astronomical studies and the development of jet and rocket propulsion systems. 

Innovation 56K | Fritz Zwicky

Scientists use confrontation as a method to question and understand the world around them by observing phenomena and asking questions about them. One famous legend that describes such a confrontation is that of Sir Isaac Newton observing an apple falling from a tree and wondering why it always descended perpendicularly to the ground. 

This observation led to his development of the laws of gravity and the principle of inertia, which revolutionized our understanding of the natural world. This method of confrontation is at the heart of the scientific process and is used by scientists to make new discoveries and develop new theories. It is a way for them to make sense of the world around them and to improve our understanding of it.

Sometimes, new theories result. "I am enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination," Einstein once said. His thought experiment, or "Gedankenexperiment," where he imagined himself riding on a photon of light shining a flashlight in the opposite direction, enabled him to formulate the Theory of Relativity. 

Innovation56K | Gedankenexperiment

In science, paradoxes are often used to describe and understand complex phenomena that cannot be explained by traditional thinking. One example of a paradox that is used to understand a scientific theory is Schrödinger's cat. This thought experiment was proposed by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to explain the concept of superposition in quantum mechanics. The thought experiment describes a hypothetical scenario in which a cat is placed in a box with a radioactive atom and a Geiger counter. The Geiger counter is set up so that if the radioactive atom decays, it triggers a mechanism that kills the cat. According to quantum mechanics, the atom exists in a superposition of states, both decayed and not decayed. Similarly the cat is both alive and dead at the same time until an observer opens the box and determines the state. This thought experiment is a paradox, as it defies the common sense of classical physics, but it provides a way for scientists to understand the behavior of quantum systems.

Innotoon56K | Schrödinger's cat

Another example of a paradox in science is the wave-particle duality of light. Light exhibits both wave-like properties, such as diffraction and interference, and particle-like properties, such as the photoelectric effect. This is a paradox, as according to classical physics, light can only exhibit one of these properties, either wave or particle, but not both.

Establishing a connection between seemingly unrelated systems or objects can lead to the emergence of new ideas and insights. This ability, known as "gist extraction," is a key component of thinking and creativity. According to Douglas Hofstadter, a renowned expert on thinking and creativity, the ability to extract the essence or "gist" from seemingly unrelated concepts requires both empathy and confrontation. In literature, we can see examples of this ability in the use of allegories and metaphors. These literary devices rely on making connections between different ideas or concepts in order to convey meaning. However, the ability to make these connections is not always innate; often, it is the result of years of study and analysis. 

Analogies can be an effective way to understand and communicate complex ideas, especially in fields like physics and chemistry. One famous example of the use of analogy in science is Niels Bohr's model of the atom. Bohr proposed an analogy between the structure of an atom and the structure of the solar system. He suggested that electrons orbit the nucleus of an atom in the same way that planets orbit the sun. This analogy helped to shed light on the structure and behavior of atoms, and it provided a way to explain the phenomenon of atomic spectra, which is the way that atoms emit and absorb light.

Another example of the use of analogy in science is the work of Louis de Broglie in 1923. At the time, scientists were trying to understand the behavior of electrons, which are subatomic particles that orbit the nucleus of an atom. De Broglie made an analogy between the behavior of electrons and the behavior of waves in music. He proposed that electrons have wave-like properties, and that they can be described mathematically using wave equations, similar to how musical notes are described using wave equations. This analogy provided a way for scientists to understand the behavior of electrons and to explain the phenomena of quantized energy levels.

Confrontation with External Systems

Confrontation with external systems can sometimes lead to new knowledge and innovation, according to Peter Drucker. Often, these external systems are biological in nature. For example, Otto Schmitt, who coined the term "biomimetics," developed the Schmitt trigger based on his observations of the squid. Another example is the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) (TBM) developed by Marc Isambard Brunel, the TBM shield design was based on the anatomy of the shipworm. Shipworms are a type of marine bivalve that burrow into wood, and Brunel observed that their ability to bore through wood without getting clogged was due to their soft and slimy body shape. He took this inspiration and designed the shield of the TBM, which allows it to bore through the soil without getting stuck. 

Innovation56K | Tunnel Boring Machine

Sometimes, contact with the external system is serendipitous. The discovery of the ring structure of the chemical compound benzene by a German chemist named Friedrich August Kekulé is a classic example of serendipity in science. The compound was first discovered by Michael Faraday in 1825, but its structure remained a mystery for many years. Kekulé is said to have had a dream in which he saw a snake seizing its tail, and in that dream, the image of the snake formed a circle. He interpreted this image as a representation of the structure of benzene, and upon waking, he began to work on the problem again and eventually proposed that the compound was composed of a ring of six carbon atoms with alternating single and double bonds.

A similar story is associated with the GelreDome, home of the Dutch football team Vitesse Arnhem. The stadium features a sliding pitch that can be retracted when not in use. The club was looking for a way to design an indoor stadium that would allow the natural grass surface to receive adequate wind and sunlight. The chairman of Vitesse, Karel Albers, was discussing the problem with the building contractor when a matchbox fell on the floor. This chance encounter inspired them to build a stadium with a retractable surface

One of the most famous examples of this type of serendipitous confrontation is that of Taiichi Ono, the father of the Toyota Production System (TPS). Ono formulated the Just-in-Time (JIT) system after observing how grocery stores restocked items on their display shelves. According to the story, Ono was visiting a local grocery store and observed how the store restocked items on its display shelves. He noticed that the store only restocked items as they were needed, and that this prevented waste and inefficiencies caused by overproduction and excess inventory. Ono was struck by the simplicity and effectiveness of this system, and realized that it could be applied to manufacturing as well. He began experimenting with JIT at Toyota, and over time developed a comprehensive system of production management that focused on minimizing waste, reducing inventory, and increasing efficiency. 

Empathy and Confrontation in Organizations

The challenge for organizations is to foster the development and coexistence of both high levels of empathy and confrontation. This requires encouraging "wild" ideas while also cultivating the understanding necessary to convert creative ideas into profitable innovations. 

According to Peter Drucker, in his book Innovation & Entrepreneurship, new ventures must possess an understanding of existing businesses, but must also be separate and distinct from existing businesses in order to take advantage of innovation opportunities. This requires organizations to create an environment where employees can both empathize and confront effectively in order to generate novel and practical ideas. 

Drucker argues that this type of environment is essential for fostering innovation within an existing business. By encouraging empathy and confrontation, organizations can create a space where employees are able to think creatively and come up with ideas that are both novel and practical. This can help businesses to stay ahead of the curve and remain competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Further Reading


(This is a revision of the essay, Empathy & Confrontation: Lessons for Innovators by Tojin T. Eapen which won the 2013 Peter Drucker Essay Challenge sponsored by the Global Peter Drucker Forum.)

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By Tojin T. Eapen The design of products, processes, and organizations guided by principles observed in living systems can be referred to as " Bioinspired System Design ." In a series of posts, we delve into the potential of generative artificial intelligence (AI) to generate bioinspired product design concepts as a part of the idea management process. Specifically, we will look at how living organisms can serve as inspiration to redesign common products and human artifacts including bags, cars, bags, pens, tanks, trains, and umbrellas. In each of these articles, we will examine how the unique characteristics and behaviors of a particular living organism can be incorporated into the design of the bioinspired product. Elephantcopter: AI Designed Elephant Inspired Helicopters Camelar: AI Product Ideation for Camel Inspired Cars Koafa: AI Product Ideation for the Koala Inspired Sofas Paradiso: AI Product Ideation for Birds-of-Paradise Inspired T-Shirts Tigoes: AI Product Ideati

The Efficiency-Resilience-Prominence (ERP) Framework

Consider any living organism and its struggle for survival in a changing environment. Three crucial factors are common to all living systems: resource management, especially energy resources; coping with environmental forces such as heat, wind, and currents; and managing relationships with other entities, which can range from friendly to predatory.  These three factors are referred to as survivability concerns. To increase survival, an organism must adapt and manage these concerns, either through biological means like specialized organs, or behavioral means such as action and strategy. Organizations also face these same concerns of resources, forces, and relationships in their quest for survival.  Each living system has three corresponding capability factors: efficiency in managing resources, resilience against environmental forces, and prominence in attracting or evading attention. These three capabilities are collectively known as the ERP factors.