Eureka! Moments and Innovation

Tech businesses – and most others, too — count on Eureka! moments to foster innovation. Not exclusively, of course, but these moments do play a significant role in solving problems that have newly arisen or have remained previously unsolved. Eureka! moments, or brand new insights occur when the brain has aggregated shards of related information into a wholly novel, highly applicable construct – something akin to the ‘whole’ that is  greater than the sum of its parts. A lot’s been written and much brain research done aimed at understanding the genesis of transformative insights.  But when seeking to understand how these moments of new insights happen or don’t, companies may find it nearly impossible to replicate the circumstances under which the valuable realizations occurred.  This has a deleterious effect on the speed of innovation, causing bottlenecks in the process that make it snail-paced and frustrating.

Some suggest the Fail Early and Fail Often approach to new insights. In this article, Daniel Newman, contributing editor to Forbes who writes:

When Alan Mulally took over a flailing Ford Motor Company just over 10 years ago, he wanted to know what was wrong. When he found that executives were hesitant to honestly share their failures, he made a stand to publicly celebrate them to help build a new culture that embraces the learning that failure often brings. But Ford is not the only car company to develop a similar affinity for failure. At Toyota, failure alerts are actually built into the assembly line. If an employee spots a problem during assembly, they are empowered to pull a cord to immediately initiate a problem-solving session. If they aren’t able to fix the issue in one minute or less, production stops. It’s all about finding problems, fixing them quickly, and learning — as a team — from the mistakes.

We all feel the pain. Eureka! moments cannot be mass produced. Executives can heed expert advice and nurture the innovation process by setting up collaborative work spaces, forming smaller teams and encouraging them to get out of their comfort zones, or by choosing more experienced innovation team leaders. There are also outside innovation acceleration services such as those provided by Belgium-based bundl which accelerate and support the innovative processes needed to develop new ventures.  All these approaches can likely help the overall process, not any one or combination of them can guarantee that sudden, valuable insights will happen.  The best thing an innovation team can do to invite Eureka! moments is to get out of their way.

Much like the common wisdom on dealing with brain cramps which concludes that thinking too hard about something is counter-productive, the most effective way to encourage the eureka effect is simply to let it happen.  Here are some approaches:


The practice of mindfulness (focused, intentional and non-judgmental attention to the present moment) in the workplace is of great value when gathering information relevant to a larger task. But according to a recent NY Times article, effective innovators gather research mindfully. But intentionally allowing for “mindless” times to let thoughts wander and go where they may appears to be an important component of innovative insight.

  1. Fall Into Rabbit Holes

This is similar to spacing out, but with the addition of an internet connection. Falling down rabbit holes is another “mindless” learning experience driven by diffuse awareness of and interest in a subject matter. Like spacing out, it is not constrained or driven by any required task. Rabbit hole searching is a total immersion experience that allows impulse to explore at will. It can enable insightful learning, but stand forewarned: it can be a huge time drain!

  1. Get Ready to Say “Eureka!”

Preparation for sudden, valuable insights can be key. A distinct characteristic of dawning innovative insights is that you NEVER know when they will occur. Keep some way of documenting these moments with you at all times – even while sleeping or on vacation. Write down even the smallest insights immediately when they occur.  There are also benefits detailed here such as clarity on everything that has your (even diffuse) attention. At the time you’ll tell yourself that this isn’t important because of course you’ll remember it later… But you might not.

  1. There are No Stupid Questions

Designing products for clients which employ emerging technologies continually presents our product design and engineering teams with problems that no one has ever had to solve before. So it is no surprise that the culture like ours at IPS fosters innovation.  Productizing emerging technologies successfully relies on exhaustive exploration which cannot be fully realized in an organization that judges people negatively for free expression of ideas, no matter how ‘out there’ they may be.  By cultivating a 100% uninhibited open season for ideation, truly innovative companies grow Eureka! moments. And they transform the products and services business landscape in the process.