Innovation and Empirical Residue

Innovation and Empirical Residue

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In my last post, I talked about a principle set forth by the philosopher, Bernard Lonergan, called Inverse Insight. In this post, I want to borrow a related concept that Lonergan calls Empirical Residue and use it to as a window to understanding innovation.

I am using Lonergan’s concept to describe the way we naturally leave out evidence that doesn’t fit our theories. We simply don’t see it or don’t believe it is important or relevant.

We all have a circle of reality within which we live and function. Experiences that lie outside that circle–though real–we may consider irrelevant or we may not even see it. Yet, I think this area is a key to creativity and innovation.

Empirical residue refers to any experience that we have that does not fit into our current mental map of reality. We receive data through seeing, feeling, touching, smelling, and measuring our world. We find ways to fit most of that data into our circle of reality. Empirical residue is the data that does not have a place in our circle. The only way to make it fit would be to enlarge the circle.

For a manager, it might be an employee reaction that does not fit what she learned at Columbia University. For a theologian, it might be a Bible passage that doesn’t make sense according to the theological system he learned at Seminary.

Organizations often get caught off guard by gradual changes in their environment that have accumulated unperceived over a period until the reality comes crashing down on them that people no longer want their service or product. Church leaders scratch their heads wondering why the methods and strategies they used in the past no longer bring people into their services.

I don’t have it now, but I once saw a picture of a sign on a public beach that said, “Beware. Don’t turn your back to the waves.” When organizations focus too much on the management of a smooth-running operation, they can be hit from behind by the waves of change. This happens when we don’t pay attention to the data that doesn’t fit our current circle of reality.

Sometimes the empirical residue becomes the norm in the outside context and the organization then–because it has remained within its circle of reality–becomes obsolete. To avoid this, we have to use the empirical residue as a point of expansion, a place where the circle can be enlarged.

What does this mean in a practical sense? Here are a few things that come to mind (If you have more to add to the list, please do so in the comments section below):

  1. Pay attention to the bizarre data. Don’t just discard the data points that resist explanation. To the contrary, focus on these things. Face them square on. Explore them.
  2. Pay attention to the bizarre people. Let’s face it: some people are just weird and all people are weird sometimes. Avoid the tendency to disregard those who stand out for their nonconformity and odd ideas.
  3. Read outside your organizational or business domain. I recently picked up a science magazine and read an article about micro-robots, which gave me a huge insight into teams and teamwork.
  4. Do something different. Do something that is completely outside your routine both as an individual and as an organization. Take your staff on a field trip to see how doughnuts are made. Take a course in calligraphy. Whatever.

The natural human tendency is to surround ourselves with familiarity and to reduce life’s tasks into standardized routines. The temptation is to turn a blind eye toward data that would cause us to think outside that routine. But remaining inside the comfort of our reality circle can be just as dangerous (or more dangerous) than venturing out into that place where experience does not match theory.

What do you think? Do you have any stories of bizarre data that enabled innovation and creativity?

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