Back to Writing

The Three Realities of Innovators

The Three Realities of Innovators

How do you build a bridge to a place that doesn’t yet exist? This is the paradoxical challenge that every innovator faces: to envision and reach for the future before it happens. This requires the gift of foresight-a skill that involves seeing emerging opportunities and taking action on those opportunities.

There are two ways that innovators navigate the unknown. The first is by seeing the future first and then constructing a bridge toward it. This is what Copernicus and Einstein did: they made game-changing observations and provided pathways for practitioners to make use of that knowledge.

The other way is to build a bridge and see the future as you cross over it. Consider all the important experimenters who discovered things and then worked backwards to build theories around them. This is what the Wright Brothers did for avionics and what Marie and Pierre Curie did for radiology. They all noticed phenomena that didn’t correlate to accepted theories and then created new models based on these observations.

What all these great thinkers have in common is the ability to make sense of changing worlds. Crucial to the initial steps of any innovation project is sense-making: understanding the inner workings of your surroundings and knowing how to apply and re-apply your deep insights. That is how innovators make their visions come to life.

So how can you take the abstract musings of early-stage brainstorming and turn them into real projects with real results? Here are the three realities that we must see, integrate, and act on in order to make innovation happen.

Imagination. This is a vision in its most powerful (and least concrete) form. There are three forms of imagination. The first is fantasy: something that you create in your mind, not unlike the way a novelist dreams up another world. The second is vision, which is less about creation and more about discovery. A vision is something that you’ve gone out and found or stumbled upon yourself. Think of yourself as Magellan or da Gama, on your own exploration voyage. The last kind of imaginative reality is a revelation-something that is given to us. In his journal, Tesla writes of angels that showed him what went on to become Tesla coils, oscillators that create high-frequency, high-voltage electricity. Inspiration may come from unlikely-even unbelievable-places.

Speculation. Once you see something noteworthy, it’s time to make a hypothesis about it: come up with a cause-and-effect explanation for it. Then, once you have many little hypotheses, bring those together in a larger theory. This entails filling in the gaps between hypotheses and coming up with a more complex account of the trend. The final part of speculation is creating a complete worldview-connecting the dots in the largest way possible. There are tons of examples of this process in scientific discoveries. A classic is the Broad Street Pump Incident of 1854, when physician and skeptic John Snow linked a London-wide cholera epidemic to a single water pump. Once he removed the handle from the pump, the epidemic stopped. This breakthrough observation and action went from hypothesis to theory to an entire worldview, changing the way people think about communicable disease. A personal speculation has the potential to shift paradigms.

Realization. It’s no coincidence that this form of reality has the word “real” in it: this stage of sense-making is about making your ideas tangible and bringing them down to everyday life. Be flexible and run lots of experiments. Take your observations and break them down into their individual parts. Be a reverse-engineer-deconstruct to reconstruct. After you’ve done your experiments, interpret the results. See what works and what doesn’t work.

Innovators do not work alone. They may start with a vision, but it takes a team of people to turn that vision into something bigger. Einstein first published his theory of relativity in 1904, yet it wasn’t until validated until 1922, when a man named W. W. Campbell took photographs of the total eclipse of the sun in Australia at different times of the day and found that the stars were slightly out of position. In fact, Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for general contributions to work in electromagnetism, before his theory of relativity had even been accepted as reality.

If Einstein needed help, so will you. Visionaries don’t have to make everything work themselves. Some innovators see the vision and pass it on to the next thinkers, while others build on the work of people who have come before them. Innovation is an ensemble performance. The best kinds of visions are collective visions. Who will help you move through the three realities of innovation?

Jeff DeGraff is the Dean of Innovation: professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. You can learn more about his groundbreaking University of Michigan Certified Professional Innovator Certificate Program and Innovatrium Institute for Innovation at

Share this article