Four Ideas Triggered by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite authors, and in reading a couple of his books recently, I ran across several quotes made me think about innovation. In large part, this is because nearly everything I encounter makes me think about innovation one or another. Nevertheless, here are four thoughts triggered by Murakami.

The first two quotes come from his most recent novel 1Q84. In the first, two characters discuss a section from a book by Chekhov that one had read out loud to the other:

Thanks for reading the book to me. I felt close to the Gilyaks. Why do the Gilyaks walk through the forest swamps and not on the wide roads[?]
Even if the roads are convenient, it’s easier for the Gilyaks to keep away from the roads and walk through the forest. To walk on the roads, they would have to completely remake the way they walk. If they remade the way they walk, they would have to remake other things. … I don’t like to walk on the wide roads either.

In the Chekhov passage, this was framed as a diffusion of innovation problem: there were brand new roads that had been built for the people, but the Gilyaks refused to use them. Why? This illustrates an important point – when you change one thing, you have to change others.

It’s frustrating when people don’t adopt our great new ideas. Often, they resist not because of the idea itself, but because of the other things they would have to change to accommodate the new idea.

In the second quote, one person who is in hiding discusses how she could be found out:

“I don’t get it. Would an analysis like that really turn up where I am now?”
“I don’t know,” Tamaru said. “It might, and it might not. It depends. I’m just saying that’s what I would do. Because I can’t think of anything else. Every person has his set routines, when it comes to thinking and acting, and where there’s a routine, there’s a weak point.”
“It sounds like a scientific investigation.”
“People need routines. It’s like a theme in music. But it also restricts your thoughts and actions and limits your freedom. It structures your priorities and in some cases distorts your logic…”

This relates to a point I raised yesterday about the tradeoffs between efficiency and innovation. Routines help us become more efficient – the are an essential part of creating regular outcomes that can be measured and improved.

At the same time, these routines limit the scope of the ideas that we think about, which makes it harder to innovate. If you’re trying to innovate, think about the routines you use at work and personally, to try to identify how they might also be limiting your freedom.

1Q84 is an excellent book, but if you haven’t read any Murakami before, it’s probably not the best place to start.

I also recently finished What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. This is a non-fiction book in which Murakami discusses how his life as a runner is deeply interconnected with his life as a writer. Here is one passage that struck me in it:

In other words, you can’t please everybody.
Even when I ran my bar I followed the same policy. A lot of customers came to the bar. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and said he’d come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it the other way, it didn’t matter if nine out of ten didn’t like my bar. This realization lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like my place really liked it. In order to make sure he did, I had to make my philosophy and stance clear-cut, and patiently maintain that stance no matter what. This is what I learned through running a business.

John always talks about how strategy is making choices. In addition to saying what you will do, you also have to be clear about what you won’t do – what you’ll say no to.

In his new book Betterness: Economics for Humans, Umair Haque discusses Constraints as one of the key components of developing a strategy that matters. Constraints are simply those things you will not do.

The math may be different in your industry – it might take more or less than one repeat customer in ten to succeed. However, the fact that you need to make this one insanely happy is a constant. And you can’t do that if you’re trying to please everyone.

Finally, here’s a short quote from Norwegian Wood:

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

I’ve talke about this before – finding your own set of information resources is a crucial part of innovating.

Of course, the real value comes from finding novel connections between the information that you’re processing – connecting ideas is the fundamental creative act in innovation.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.