How to Innovate, Part 2: Distill

June 6, 2023

In part one of this 5-part series on how to innovate, we dove deep into how to better observe our surroundings. We learned why great ideas start with more ideas, and how to observe the world around us step by step.

But it isn’t enough to simply collect dots. Now that we have them, we need to figure out how to string them together toward something useful. That’s where step two comes into play: how to distill patterns from all the dots we’ve collected.

Your brain: the ultimate information processor

There’s no better information processing machine than the human brain. It’s uncanny how it observes things, connects the dots between them, and turns them into patterns. In fact, our brain’s ability to recognize patterns is a natural trait that’s wired into us—even babies are born knowing how to detect patterns.

Your brain then decides which patterns have meaning, which are clues to what you should pay attention to, and what you can ignore. Perhaps things are OK down that dark alley, and you don’t need to do a more detailed inspection before taking that first confident step. Or maybe it makes sense to take another route home. Your ability to quickly connect dots and come up with patterns is a timesaver.

Without you even realizing it, your brain connects hundreds of dots in a microsecond as it looks for patterns. The more dots you have to connect, the more patterns you’ll see. The key to recognizing patterns comes from collecting as many dots as possible and then connecting them in a jillion different ways.

Why you suddenly see patterns everywhere

Your brain’s ability to process like this is why you buy a blue car and suddenly you see blue cars everywhere. If you’re an avid dot collector, your pattern recognition skills may overflow into noticing people who wear blue shirts. You’ll see more blue in the magazines you read, and blue seems to be the color theme of every website you visit. Your brain connects the dots between similar things and finds patterns that may otherwise feel completely random.

Something interesting happens with how you detect patterns. When you consciously set out to look for them, the part of your brain that works the hardest isn’t actually the part that gives you the huge eureka moments.

For instance, when you try to make sense of what you see in the world around you, you use linear problem-solving. This means you try to solve problems by logically working out a solution. Think about adding several six-figure numbers without a calculator or doing time-zone math. This kind of thinking uses your conscious memory. These are the things you need to keep handy so you can decide where to eat lunch or find your way home from the gym. As you go from dawn to dusk, your working memory maxes out pretty quickly. This is why you feel exhausted at the end of a demanding day. You’ve consciously tried to knock down one roadblock after another.

On the other side of the fence, there’s the unconscious part of your brain, which tackles nonlinear problems like finding patterns. This is actually where you do the heavy lifting in connecting the dots and coming up with insights— you just don’t realize it because much of the work happens behind the scenes. The number of linear problems your brain solves in a day is infinitesimal compared with the volume of nonlinear ones.

Take, for example, when your boss says you need new ways to increase customer experience scores, but there’s no room in the budget to make it happen. There’s no preexisting or logical solution. You may assume there’s no way to make it happen, but there’s part of your brain already going to work trying to figure out a way to connect dots and solve the problem.

From collecting dots to creating constellations

Everyone who’s ever looked up at the night sky has seen a group of stars. If you don’t know what to look for, they just look like random blips of light. Orion, one of the most recognizable constellations in the world, is a great example. At first glance in that area of the sky, there’s nothing that makes sense. But as you pay more attention, you’ll see three stars in a row that make his belt. Two bright points depict his shoulders, and another two his knees. With just seven stars, you have before you a Greek mythological hunter. That’s all constellations are: patterns of stars made up by connecting dots.

In the Observe step, you collected dots—ideally, hundreds of different types of them. The more dots (experiences) you have to start with, the more connections you’ll have to draw from down the line. As you collect more and more dots, you’ll begin to see how to connect them into patterns that form potential constellations.

Why should we look for patterns at all?

The entire purpose of the Distill step is to learn how to connect dots so you can identify patterns. Observation for observation’s sake isn’t helpful. You need to take the essence of what you take in and distill that until you see broader themes. In the Distill step, you want to look for similarities in your observations and then put them into groups. This delays your knee-jerk reaction of wanting to jump ahead and generate ideas too soon. It slows down the creative process, which gives your brain more time and leeway to think in a nonlinear fashion.

As you work through the Distill step, keep in mind you’re not getting graded on this, and there’s no right or wrong answer. You aren’t even looking for the best connections or ones that will solve your problem. The work that you do in the Distill step is actually counterintuitive.

You’ll feel an urge to jump ahead to the Generate step, but be patient. While it might feel that you have the key to solving your problem, trust me, you’re not there yet. Actually, the secret to solving your problem is to continue to forget about your objective for a little while longer. This will slow you down long enough to see how the entire process works, and why there’s a reason for each step.

How to distill: step by step

As you evaluate your observations, you’ll go through the following three steps to decide what has meaning and discover relationships to other “dots”.

  1. Scrutinize. What are all the ways in which two or more things share a common element? For example, a hipster tattoo artist with low-slung pants, a white-haired priest, and an exotic dancer may all appear drastically different. But, believe it or not, they have a lot in common. The same goes for the flagpole outside a school, the billboard advertising a new retirement community, and a radio tower on the horizon.
  2. Discern. What meaning do these elements have in relation to each other? This can come from the smallest of elements. For the hipster, priest, and dancer, it could be something as simple as they make a living working with other people. For the flagpole, billboard, and radio tower, maybe one of the commonalities is that they all signal something.
  3. Identify. What are the bigger patterns that arrive from these common elements? Go through your list of observations. What patterns do you start to see? Give each grouping a label. With our example, the three people could be the start of a group called “Pleasure” or even “Sin.” For the flagpole, billboard, and radio tower, the bigger meaning could be “Communication.” Then you may add in some other observations that fit the communication category, such as a stop sign, someone saying hello, and a turn signal on a car. There are no rules on what you choose to name the groups. The labels only need to reflect the spirit of the observations.

There’s no level of importance to the connections you make; you’re simply looking for relationships. The specific patterns you find matter much less than the fact that you practice making the connections. The process itself is the goal.

If you feel stuck with this step, you’re overthinking things. This exercise is way simpler than you realize…but it’s not easy. This is when your complexity bias kicks in and you’ll feel you need to make this more complicated than it needs to be. Relax. The power of this step truly comes from the simplicity of it.

What comes next?

Great insights really can pop out of nowhere. But to have that happen, you have to first practice connecting dots and then make use of them by identifying their patterns. In the next step, Relate, you’ll learn how your constellations move from theory and begin to have context in the real world.

Photo credit: allanlau2000 via Pixabay

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author