Columbus was dining with many Spanish nobles when one of them said: ‘Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies, there would have been, here in Spain, which is a country abundant with great men knowledgeable in cosmography and literature, one who would have started a similar adventure with the same result.’ Columbus did not respond to these words but asked for a whole egg to be brought to him. He placed it on the table and said: ‘My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.’ They all tried without success and when the egg returned to Columbus, he tapped it gently on the table breaking it slightly and, with this, the egg stood on its end. All those present were confounded and understood what he meant: that once the feat has been done, anyone knows how to do it.1Girolamo Benzoni

Columbus’ Egg

In the traditional Chinese practice of egg balancing, Columbus would have been disqualified immediately for committing a foul. But sometimes one has to break the rules and play the game in a different way in order to come up with an innovative solution. Referring to a brilliant discovery or idea that seems simple or easy after the fact, the anecdote of Columbus breaking the egg illustrates the paradoxical nature of creativity: in hindsight, everyone is smarter. But whether or not one is smarter in hindsight, the common sense rarely manages to balance the egg.

Think like a Designer

Well, an approach to methodically break away from traditional thinking is Design Thinking. Based on the specific cognitive activities that designers, architects and urban planners apply during the process of designing, Design Thinking has evolved since the early 70s and has proofed to be efficient in tackling complex problems of all kinds. Widely used in education as well as in companies like Philips, Volkswagen, Siemens, Airbnb, Deutsche Bank, Procter & Gamble, IBM and Microsoft, it all started out with acknowledging the way designers think as its own distinct mode of understanding the world.

More than Just a Method of Creative Action

Designers, when confronted with so called wicked problems, proceed in a more playful way than traditional science. Instead of approaching the issue with narrow criticism, stemming from the problem-focused procedure of the Cartesian method, designers allow themselves to experiment freely on the subject with an emphasis on enjoying the process. Solving complex problems is not a question of sheer intelligence, let alone of being a genius, it’s about the ability to adopt a different point of view.

The Eureka Effect

A common facet in the Designerly Ways of Knowing (as the title of Nigel Cross’ book puts it) is the aha! moment, the moment a previously incomprehensible issue suddenly is understood and the solution to a tricky problem at once stands before us, so obvious and convincing that in retrospect we may wonder: why didn’t I come up with this earlier? Prior to the inspiration, the process seems hazy and hardly expedient, but that’s exactly where it gets interesting.

Start From Where You Are

Although we often want to get past such a process as soon as possible and tend to avoid the ambiguous and nebulous issues, it’s actually all about really getting into it; not with the focus on a result to attain, but on the process itself to engage oneself in. The moment you stop to know what’s what and really start thinking is the moment where it becomes interesting. Until out of a sudden a clear path forward appears on the horizon – Eureka!2

Open Access to Systematic Innovation

The design of a thinking that best preserves the ambiguity of a subject, and thus is able to discover hidden alternatives and connections, involves several cognitive domains like divergent, imaginative, lateral, iterative, visual and ambidextrous thinking. Now, transferring these principles to business settings is a matter of change in the entrepreneurial culture. To create and nurture a milieu that fosters innovation means adapting a truly collaborative work style. Whether innovations are fruitfully accomplished or not therefore greatly depends on the environment prevailing in the company.

Explore, Prototype, Test, and then Again: Explore…

Since the networks we are living, studying and working in more and more tend to become like sorts of brains, i.e. rapid interfaces of information, the opening up of communication is of central importance to encourage participation from the entire breath of lateral dimension: flat hierarchies stimulate exchange and appreciate the employees for the valuable sources of expertise they are; interdisciplinary settings facilitate creative thinking on an organizational scale and involvement of the client perspective makes the invisible visible.

A Change in Culture that Pays Off

Since the current practice of Design Thinking is split into various kinds of methodologies, there have been efforts over the last years to further develop and extend Design Thinking to its original broad meaning and to include a topic often neglected in innovation processes: its cultural preconditions. The result is Systematic Innovation, an approach developed by Salzburg Urstein Institut to systematically identify and develop the overall framework for innovation processes, in learning as well as in business constellations. By thoroughly exploring the causality and genesis of innovations, this approach turned out to be among the most reliable methods to unlock the potential for innovation, encompassing the whole process from the initial idea to a product ready for the market. As a learning concept and a skill set, Systematic Innovation is included in all the master programmes of the SUI and lays the foundation for realistic implementation in the working environment. Learn more about how the skillset behind Systematic Innovation interlinks with the developments around what is called Industry 4.0 in our next blog.


1 Girolamo Benzoni (1565), Historia del Mondo Nuovo; Venice. English translation History of the New World by Girolamo Benzoni, Hakluyt Society, London, 1857
2 Ancient Greek: „I have found!“ exclamated by Archimedes.