If you are nerdy enough (in a good way, of course) to read past the headline above, then you probably know some of the basics about quantum mechanics, the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment, and maybe even a bit about superposition, wave function collapse, and the many worlds theory.

But what you might not be aware of is a kind of spooky — to paraphrase Einstein’s observation about the quantum world — the connection between quantum physics and that other ultra-mysterious realm — innovation.

Let’s call it Quantum Innovation, just to put a quasi-name on this weird but intriguing connection…

The Ineffable Weirdness of Innovation (After Kundera)

For just about all of the 25 years I’ve spent studying, and trying to practice, innovation, I’ve always thought that there was something a little strange about this particular aspect of the world — something that seems to exempt if from following the normal rules and realities of business.

What’s more, after spending, 22 or those years in Silicon Valley/San Francisco, the true cradle of innovation, and 7 of those years studying 350 historical innovations that go back 3.5 million years, I’m become more convinced than ever that there is something about innovation that makes it inherently difficult to understand, and even harder to actually do.

And then, one day, while doing some research on Einstein (as part of a research project on Nobel Laureates and how they innovate differently from other people) I saw a connection between quantum physics and innovation that seemed to explain the essential ungraspability of the latter.

At this point, I’m just riffing on this idea — this blog is called, after all, Thinking in Public — but I think there are some interesting connections here, outlined as follows…

Quantum/Innovation: Two Counter-Intuitive Realms That Shape Our World

Let’s start with the quantum world…

One of the most interesting aspects of quantum physics is the idea of “superposition,” which is basically the idea that any given particle seems to exist in multiple different states at the same time — aka a wave — and that somehow the act of our observing or measuring it causes a “wave function collapse” wherein the particle “chooses” a single state.

This is, of course, kind of crazy, especially when contrasted with the Newtonian view of the universe that had prevailed until the 1920s, when the global physics elite — people such as Einstein, Bohr, and Erwin Schrodinger — started wrestling with these new realities.

And of course, it was Schrodinger who came up with the famous thought experiment now referred to as “Schrodinger’s Cat,” which is basically as follows…

Imagine a cat placed in a box with a vial of poison — I know, I know, but remember it’s just a thought experiment — and a radioactive source with a 50/50 chance of decaying over the course of an hour. If/when that happens, the poison is released and the cat dies.

So, right until you open the box, the idea is that the cat exists in a kind of limbo-like dual state, where it is simultaneously dead and alive — what we would call, at the quantum level, superposition.

This seems illogical at the non-quantum level — and illustrating the absurdity of a living/dead cat was actually the purpose of Schrodinger’s thought experiment — but at the quantum level, this is actually what happens: somehow our interaction with the phenomena we are observing either helps the thing observed make a “state choice,” or, even weirder, somehow at that moment of observation, the universe actually splits into two alternative universes, one where the cat is alive and one where it is dead.

Schrodinger’s Cat → Schrodinger’s Llama: The Quantum Innovation Theory

So what does all that have to do with innovation? A lot, I think.

For years I’ve been struck by the strangeness of innovation, particularly around the idea that, when we look at a given situation, the range of innovation that can possibly occur is directly influenced by our own beliefs about innovation in that setting.

For example, think about the invention of Braille…

Before 1829, when Louis Braille published his first version of braille, we could say that the idea of blind people reading was “impossible,” because of course, no blind person had ever “read” before that.

But then, in 1829, when braille comes out, we can say that it was now “possible” for blind people to read — in other words, the concept of “blind people” reading has moved from one conceptual phase to another.

But is that what really happened? I think not…

Think about it this way: was it actually “impossible” for blind people to read in, say, 1700 — or is it more accurate to say that we humans had not discovered/invented a way for them to read?

I think the latter is more accurate, which brings me to the idea that before Braille’s innovation, “blind people reading” was both impossible (because no one had ever done it) and possible (because someone, using existing knowledge and materials) could have easily created braille, or something similar.

Going back to quantum physics, I think a potential innovation like braille was very much in the same kind of “superposition” state as our aforementioned particle was before we observed it — it was both impossible and impossible at the same time!

And what’s more, just as our observation of the particle forces a kind of “state choice,” I think the same exact thing happens with innovation, in the sense that, when we believe that something is “impossible” all of the potential pluralities of that situation essential collapse to a single, null state — and it remains impossible; but on the other hand, when we believe that something is “possible,” we see a similar superposition collapse, and we can start thinking and doing the things to make that idea/potential innovation a reality.

Innovation Spookiness, Demystified

Looking at innovation through this quantum lens doesn’t completely explain why it’s so hard to understand and do, but it does speak to the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of trying to do real innovation, namely, that to the average person the world seems very much fixed/solid/objective/finished (Newtonian view of the universe), until, that is, the wild-eyed innovator comes on the scene, believes some innovation into being a potential reality, and therefore opens up a pathway that wasn’t there before.

And that also explains why large organizations are usually so bad at innovation — they fall under the spell of the powerful hallucination that the world is solid/stable, etc., and therefore suffer the superposition collapse of future potentialities down to a dull, incremental-if-anything range. Or even, to a super-null state where no innovation happens.

On the other hand, the innovator, looking at a situation or condition, chooses to see certain things as possible, and by doing so, to some degree, then makes those things possible.

Finally, this theory would explain to a large degree why some of my most effective work with large organizations has been around innovation mindset, which is about how people think about innovation. I’ve often said that, without an innovation mindset (aka, that kind of quantum belief in the power to innovate), even the best innovation skillsets and toolsets are often relatively useless.

But once a robust innovation mindset is in place, that opens up infinite possibilities for innovation, essentially changing the innovation “state” from negative to positive.

Schrodinger’s Llama: A New Idea is Considered Good Until Proven Bad

One good example of this belief → possibility dynamic is embedded in a joke that I usually end my presentations with, which I call “The Spirit of the Llama/The Silicon Valley Superpower.”

The joke involves three different responses to a crazy idea that a dentist has about bringing an actual llama into his dentist office to help calm his patients down. In the joke, I contrast the negative/comedic responses to this crazy idea in places like New York and Boston with the positive/helpful response it would get (theoretically) in San Francisco/Silicon Valley.

The point of the joke is that the SF/SV way of thinking “yes before/until no” opens up a field of possibility in which we can try to innovate, while the “no before yes” approach blocks/obliterates any chance to innovate.

For years I’ve believed that this simple, but profound, different in the SF Bay Area innovation mindset is the difference that leads to so much innovation in this region — but it’s only now that I see that this approach could be seen as causing a superposition collapse that changes the state of any potential innovation/crazy idea from impossible to possible.

Hence, Schrodinger’s Llama. In San Francisco/Silicon Valley, the llama is always alive, meaning, the possibilities are always infinite.

Read more by Bill O'Connor

Bill O’Connor is the Founder of the Autodesk Innovation Genome Project — a 10-year research project studying the entire history of human innovation with the aim of identifying the essential techniques of innovation – as well as the Nobel Laureate Innovation Project, currently being developed at The Vault. Over the past seven years, Bill has delivered more than 500 presentations, workshops, and consulting engagements to hundreds of companies and organizations from 40 countries around the world, including Royal Bank of Scotland, Facebook, GE, Tesla, Airbnb, Renault, Google, Twitter, Starbucks, Nike, IKEA, Bechtel, Boeing, the US Naval Academy, the U.S. DoD, and the World Bank.