What can a zombie apocalypse, gorilla and kids teach us about innovation?

World renowned author Carla Johnson explores how companies can and should successfully innovate by finding inspiration

In research from McKinsey than 70 percent of senior executives said that innovation is at least one of the top three drivers of growth for their companies in the next three to five years. Others saw innovation as the most important way for companies to speed up the pace of change in today’s business environment. Yet surveys also show that 94% of CEOs are displeased with the way their companies innovate. Even with execs feeling the love for innovation, that doesn’t mean it comes in a nice box with a neatly tied bow. It’s tricky stuff.

To successfully innovate we have to be able to find inspiration. The problem is we’ve stopped looking for it. We spend most of our days tuning out the world. But, if you put down your phone, take out your earbuds and look around, you can find massive inspiration for anything you need. All you have to do is learn how to observe.

When we’re kids, we notice everything around us. Babies do something called “mouthing” to learn about the world around them. This form of oral exploration is an important part of their development because it’s by putting toys and other objects in their mouth that they discover tastes and textures. As they grow into toddlers and young children, it’s through play. They observe and learn by connecting the dots through the experiences they have.

Why you miss the gorilla

As adults, we go through much of our life on autopilot. I know I’ve been guilty of driving from one place to another and not remembering a thing about the trip. It was a route I took so often that my mind was busy trying to solve other problems on my to-do list. I, like many people, pass mentally unconscious through parts of my life and don’t see it.

There’s a scientific term for this – inattentional blindness. Also called perceptual blindness, inattentional blindness is what happens when someone is so wrapped up in one thing that they’re unable to notice something else that’s obvious right in front of them.

You may well have watched the famous YouTube video of two teams passing a ball and been tasked with counting how many passes they make. Most viewers are so intent on the task of counting that they utterly fail to see the gorilla who makes an appearance in the clip!

Developing awareness

When we get off the beaten path, even just a little bit, that all changes. Travel to a new country – or even a new city – and the details of everything heightens all of your senses.  You smell all the smells,  hear all the sounds, feel the change in temperature, see how people behave differently and taste different flavours. Rent a car and drive in Oslo and compare how that feels to driving in Omaha. Play fútbol in Madrid and compare that to football in Minneapolis. Eat dinner in Barcelona and compare that to Boston.

When you report back to friends and family about your experience, you recreate even the smallest details. What it’s like to circle a round-about (again) in Europe. Fútbol and football are two completely different sports. And don’t think about sitting down for dinner before 10 pm in Spain.

It’s at these times, when you’re in the midst of something completely unfamiliar, that you’re most likely to go back to those childhood patterns. You pay attention to every detail, watch what’s going on, and pause to take in the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes of what you’re experiencing.

Let me explain what I mean…

Observation and the zombie apocalypse

Dave Daigle headed Strategic Partnerships and Media Relations for the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) preparedness department in Atlanta, Georgia. He had a tough job in front of him – trying to get people to pay attention to public-health concerns that happened with major disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.

One day David and his team were talking about hurricane season, which was right around the corner. They realized that they published the same information every year, but didn’t know if anyone even paid attention to it. Because of that, he started looking around and observed how much people were consumed by the Zombie apocalypse craze. And he thought, “What if, instead of inundating people with stats and facts, we shared our message through a fun, made-up disaster scenario?”

By observing what was going on in popular culture, David and his team came up with the idea of telling how to survive any major disaster through the story of a zombie apocalypse. They created a website with resources and where people could download the eBook on how to prepare.

The response to the zombie-packaged information proved so overwhelmingly positive that David and his team actually flipped the tables. Now, instead of struggling to get people’s attention before disaster strikes, people proactively reach out to the CDC asking how to prepare ahead of time.

Observing the world around us as a source of innovation sounds simple, but it’s hard to do in practice. We need to pay attention to what’s going on around us better, rather than rushing from one thing to the next.

I doubt you’ll suddenly see gorillas showing up that you never noticed before. And you probably won’t walk away with massive insights from sitting on park bench for a couple of minutes. But to get good at taking Inspiration from the world around you, you have to regularly practice observing it.


Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller and co-author of Fast Forward Files (Molden Verlag) and will be speaking at the Fast Forward Forum this October in Venice.