A Rubik Cube Approach For Innovation

by Paul Hobcraft

A Rubik's Cube Approach to InnovationI’m sure we have all come across the Rubik Cube, a 3-D mechanical puzzle, invented in 1974 by Erno Rubik as one of the world’s best-selling toys.

The classic cube has six faces covered by nine stickers each offering a solid colour (white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow). The cube has a pivot mechanism enabling each face to turn independently, thus mixing up the colours. For the puzzle to be solved you must achieve that each face is to be made up of one consistent colour.

It was suggested the cube was originally built to aid students to understand 3D objects but actually Rubik’s actual purpose was solving the structural problems of the parts moving independently without the entire mechanism falling apart.

Innovation is equally a puzzle with moveable parts

We need to see Innovation as an entire structure where we constantly need to move the parts. We always want to seek alignment, perfect alignment. That dream of achieving all, within that specific aspect of innovation we are attempting, is fully lined up and then we are content. Impossible!

What we fail to realize the total structure within innovation is always turning; it is always altering its ‘face’ to adapt to the changes we need to adapt too. We can never achieve perfect alignment, the makeup of innovation is constantly changing, so what we must do is keep moving the different ‘faces’ around to meet at best, a temporary alignment. That is the best we can really do.

Permutations are infinitesimal within innovation

Unlike Rubik’s cube where you have 239,500,800 ways to arrange the edges, it does seem like innovation! In the Cube you have eight corners and twelve edges and eight ways to arrange the corner cubes. Seven can be orientated independently and the orientation of the eighth depends on the preceding seven giving 2,187 possibilities. You can even flip eleven edges independently with the flip of the twelfth depending on the preceding one, giving 2,048 possibilities here.  They suggest there are forty-three quintillion positions and perhaps even more but you are getting the ‘permutation’ picture of the Cube and perhaps of innovation!

The Move Notation

Attempting to align anything needs movement, a sequence of moves. Well if you think about it to achieve a certain innovation ‘state’ you need to bring a number of aspects or faces to closer alignment but these do need a planned sequence of moves in most cases. Relying alone on serendipity just may not work.

There are solutions to the Rubic cube that need less than 100 moves and in July 2010, a team of researchers including Rokicki, working with Google proved the so-called “God’s number” to be 20. I think you will agree there are many consultants offering the equivalent “God number” of ways to solve innovation, their “omniscience” moment.

I sometimes kid myself I’ve crack innovation only to recognize minutes later I had forgotten something or not fully accounted for it in my concept -it just keeps me going even more.

Yes Innovation is a consistent challenge, always turning

Yes the Rubik Cube feels often like innovation, you change one part and it has its consequences on another.  When you reflect on all the permutations required in innovation you recognise it is a constant, evolving, ever-changing puzzle. For me the enjoyment of the Rubik Cube is to keep thinking and moving around the different parts. I’ve never been able or patient enough to solve it but like innovation it still fascinates me. The difference is unlike the cube which can be solved, innovation as such, cannot. We can only arrive at a given point, and then it changes again. What keeps me motivated is moving the different parts so we do arrive at an improving situation but never a complete one. We need to keep moving the innovation parts constantly.

The best we can do is work consistently to attempting to align as much within the innovation puzzle (processes, culture, people, functions, concepts, technology etc) and get it as close as we think we can and push through the idea, constantly pivoting as we go, to achieve a better solution than before.

The quest is never-ending.

We can’t stop searching, we also can’t achieve perfect alignment for innovation but we can alway be constantly moving towards a certain harmony, that allows us to make sure we are making progress on where we were that time before.

Innovation is a puzzle, even if we felt we had got to that ‘aligned’ point I just bet you something will come along and mix it up again. A change in the market, a merger of two different organizations and their cultures, a new technology breakthrough that will all keep us constantly turning the different faces of the Innovation Cube to try to get back to that (illusive) ‘steady state.’

All we can do is keep turning those different faces of innovation and get closer to ‘alignment points’ but never, it seems, achieving the perfect alignment, that ultimate moment unlike the (simple) Rubik Cube. Perhaps the answer does live within the wind that drives the windmills.

image credit/references: wikipedia.com

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Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.

No comments

  1. Dear Mr. Hobcraft,

    I just want to tell you that I enjoy very much reading your articles, especially this one gave me a lot of thoughtfulness regarding the excellent topic of innovation.
    This is a video that I would like you to watch carefully: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4QyBy3lX7U
    This guy can solve any Rubik cube you give, no matter how scrambled, in maximum 15 seconds. How is he doing it? He got this passion 1 year and 3 months ago and practices it 200 times a day. It is quite impressive, isn’t it?
    My conclusion is that with full commitment and devotion for innovation, “any given Rubik cube” can be solved in useful time for the organization not to lose its competitive advantage. Managers have to achieve that “Zen state” of flexibility and they have to transmit and instill it to every single employee of the company. How can it be acquired? Practice, practice, practice. And excellence can be achieved.

    With all the best wishes,
    Emanuel Balan

    MBs student in Innovation in European Business
    University College Cork, Ireland

  2. I think is an incredible way to see something that can start as just a game.

  3. Emanuel, thanks for your friendly comments, I’ll take a look at the video

    Also Laura- yes it can explain the consistent movement within innovation of the different aspects to ‘form’ different alignment (colours) for different innovation activity- a fun place to start to describe innovation

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