The Intensity Factor in Innovation: Principles from Zen Philosophy

This paper is a follow-up to my previous article, “The Eastern Way: How Chinese Philosophy can Power Innovation in Business Today” (June 18, 2012). The present article defines the concept of intensity in innovation, using Eastern Zen philosophy, in a way that can be useful for business while avoiding too much focus on personality traits. Zen intensity in innovation stresses intuition, sensory and physical experience/re-experience, artistry, the integration of conflicting ideas, and the avoidance of premature choices. Examples are cited from the career of the late Zen enthusiast, Steve Jobs. Regarding the use of time, the Zen approach to intensity implies a full and sustained engagement of all creative processes, not simply a rapid time to project completion.

The previous article, “The Eastern Way: How Chinese Philosophy can Power Innovation in Business Today”, published June 18, 2012 can be found here.

Introduction: Interpreting the Intensity of Steve Jobs

The recent best-selling biography by Walter Isaacson about the late IT entrepreneur, Steve Jobs, cited “intensity” as a key factor in Jobs’ innovation success (Steve Jobs, 2011). The word intensity itself, however, has different connotations, including personality attributes that complicate its application to innovation processes in organizations. For instance, a manager might become intensely angry and threatening toward his or her subordinates, behavior that would not necessarily have a positive impact on firm output and innovation. This type of intensity was often reported in the case of Steve Jobs at Apple, despite his strong record of innovative outcomes. Can intensity be defined in such a way as to suggest useful strategies and processes for business innovation? Here, we briefly apply some of the principles of Zen Buddhist philosophy—a major influence on Steve Jobs—to structure a broad concept of intensity as a force for innovation.

Note: Although important to a full treatment of Zen, we do not discuss specific physical practices, such as seated meditation (zazen). See, for example, The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment, by Philip Kapleau (2000). We also greatly simplify the full array of often confusing terminology typically presented in guides to Zen practice.

Discussing different aspects of innovation intensity can help businesses to evaluate what they should be doing to enhance their innovation culture, including ideation, focus, commitment and persistence.

Intensity in innovation is a multifaceted concept. The Zen approach to intensity in innovation includes the following linked characteristics, which we will touch on below: holistic awareness, concentration, intuition, sensory experience and re-experience, patience, insight, contradiction and integration.

Intensity relates to the topic of innovation culture within business that is popular in this magazine. Discussing different aspects of innovation intensity can help businesses to evaluate what they should be doing to enhance their innovation culture, including ideation, focus, commitment and persistence.

We focus on intensity in innovation more as process than personality—an attempt to organize the concept in a useful way for business. Certainly, intensity can involve psychological pressure and stress at a personal level given all the uncertainties of an innovation project trajectory. However, we do not define intensity in innovation as a cluster of disparate personality traits that have different, unpredictable impacts. We define it in more philosophical terms as a phenomenon of business culture. Intensity can serve as a linking concept between Eastern philosophy and innovation process. We interpret it here as a sustained feature of good innovation practice, not episodic or intermittent. More specifically, intensity comprises a focused and sustained approach to the decision-making process of innovation, as opposed to a “rush to judgment”—i.e., a rush to solutions. Intensity includes the integration, over time, of often conflicting innovation objectives, not a quick succession of either/or choices. (Multiple objectives are common in computer innovation because a new computer device is often designed to perform different functions—for example, the iPhone combining the functions of cell phone, PC and iPod.)

A Zen Approach to Intensity in Innovation

In May-June of 2012, the author conducted a small, non-statistical test survey on the possible use of East Asian philosophy in business management and innovation. The respondents, contacted by email, were business employees or business school professors/students in Taiwan. About 40 percent of the respondents cited some sort of positive relationship between East Asian philosophy and business. One respondent cited the influence of Buddhism and two mentioned the related Chinese philosophy of Daoism. Confucianism was also mentioned. In comparison to Confucianism, Daoism was noted by one respondent as a “new trend of concept that might attract attention.”

Zen Buddhism, originating in 6th century China (Chinese: “Ch’an”), represents a convergence of Mahayana Buddhism with Chinese Daoism; it is a “culmination” or “transcendence” of these two philosophies. Osho states that Japanese Zen Buddhism includes a “synthesis” of “Eastern meditation” and “Western rationality;” it is not simply “escapist.” Buddhism is “scientific”, “empirical”; it avoids “dogmas and ideology” (Zen, 2004).

There is a built-in intensity factor to the practice of Zen Buddhism. Namely, study does not simply precede understanding. You continue to study a phenomenon, and thereby gain different and deeper insights, even when you feel substantial comprehension is already achieved.

Fundamental to Zen is the concept of wisdom, or prajnain Buddhism. Prajna recognizes the importance of intuition, concentration, impermanence or change, and interdependent causation. Osho writes that one should accept the “totality” or inclusiveness of things. People exist in “deep interdependence” (Osho, 2004). Prajna in Zen is not necessarily achieved by quiet passivity but comprises dynamic human action (Huineng, early Zen master). One should listen as well as draw upon analytic intelligence. Wisdom in Zen is sensory and experiential, not only derived from contemplation and meditation.

Within Zen, it is sometimes necessary to overcome conventional, rational ways of mentally ordering physical phenomena in order to have the opportunity to gain spontaneous, intuitive insight (kensho or satori—awakening/enlightenment). Such insight may lead to a contradiction of previous entrenched concepts. Zen scholar Katsuki Sekida presents the analogy that, “Intuition is not a simple action, but goes flashing through all the data almost simultaneously, as a computer does” (Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, 1985). Intuition can be a way of understanding variables that are changing at the same time and assessing which are the most important in a given creative context.

Intuition benefits from repeated sensory evidence (sometimes called dharma) and physical experience, such as handling features of a new product design. Sekida states that one should use “direct experience” to “revise” one’s knowledge, which is not perfect. A simple example would be looking at an object from “different angles” (Sekida, 1985). Regarding the invention of the iPhone, Farhad Manjoo writes, “Apple has an extensive array of systems to quickly create physical prototypes of digital designs, and the team would handle all of these prototypes [on a table in the design studio] and remark on how they felt” (“It Smelled Something Like Pizza,”, September 10, 2012).

“Trained in Zen Buddhism, Mr. Jobs came to value experiential wisdom over empirical analysis. …Mr. Jobs’ intuition was based not on conventional learning but on experiential wisdom. …Both Einstein and Mr. Jobs were very visual thinkers. …Mr. Jobs spent time almost every afternoon walking around the studio of his brilliant design chief Jony Ive and fingering foam models of the products they were developing” (Walter Isaacson, “The Genius of Jobs,” The New York Times, October 29, 2011).

The development of the Apple iPhone full-face touchscreen illustrates how to create intuitive flexibility, and thus Zen simplicity, for a new product user. Manjoo states: “The software team’s main job was figuring out a way to make a completely novel interface feel intuitive and natural. One way they did this was by creating finger ‘gestures’ that allowed you to get around the phone very quickly.” [An example of this innovation was replacing pinch-to-zoom with (double) tap-to-zoom.] “…once engineers got tap-to-zoom to work, [Apple team chief Scott] Forstall found the phone to be much easier to use.” “It allowed me to browse the Web much more fluently,” he said (Manjoo, 2012).

Zen intuition and simplicity of consumer results are generally accompanied by an intense innovation process.

However, Zen intuition and simplicity of consumer results are generally accompanied by an intense innovation process. Manjoo concludes about the iPhone: “Stuff that seems really small and intuitive about its design—things like inertial scrolling, the rubber-band effect, the simple idea of making the device a rectangle with rounded corners—only came about because Apple’s designers spent years thinking those things up and making them real” (Manjoo, 2012).

Intensity as the Integration of Contradiction

Intensity in innovation is not doing more of one thing but expanding company efforts along different and complementary dimensions. Intensity includes both: 1) breadth—different product or service ideas, and 2) depth—underlying core ideas to serve as integrating concepts. Examples of the latter are the display screen as core design principle of the iPhone and Steve Jobs’ PC as “digital hub” strategy.

Intensity in innovation also involves the creative management of contradiction—both internal and external to the business. An astute entrepreneur has to deal with possibly contradictory information flowing in from outside the firm—customer preferences, economic trends, and government tax and regulatory policies. But an intense manager may also want to stimulate creative tension within the firm by putting out, for debate and evaluation, contradictory ideas for new products and processes. He or she may even go so far (as Steve Jobs did with the Apple MacIntosh and Apple Lisa PCs during the 1980s) as to promote “friendly” competition between divisions or research teams within the same company working to build different prototypes for a new product. Intra-firm rivalry can be useful if management is not sure which prototype is likely to succeed with consumers—for example, regarding cost vs. quality and convenience.

Following the Zen koan principle, “identity of opposites,” or non-duality (from the early Zen masters, Hori and Sengcan), one should not simply accept contradictory ideas, or be against negativity. One should look for commonalities and complementarities among apparent opposites. This Zen principle is a stricter version of the “paired opposites” (yin-yang) approach in the Chinese philosophy of Daoism. It makes sense when you think of innovation as a process of moving from already known ideas or technology to something that seems opposed or completely new. In most cases, there is still a common thread or underlying knowledge base that can serve as a point of departure for an innovative concept or product—i.e., nothing is totally “new under the sun.” An example is the 1980s computer innovation of graphical interfaces and bitmapping. It shares an underlying binary code—ones and zeroes—structure with the older, linear keystroking language of data punch cards. (Although not a factor in the invention of the modern computer, it is interesting to note that the Chinese created a form of binary code in their ancient I Ching (Book of Changes) text, which also has connections to Daoist philosophy.)

Zen philosophy is opposed to purely sequential decision-making—either/or, positive/negative choices— in innovation projects. Intensity in innovation includes working hard to integrate opposing ideas such that the final product is easy or convenient to use.

Zen philosophy is opposed to purely sequential decision-making—either/or, positive/negative choices— in innovation projects. Intensity in innovation includes working hard to integrate opposing ideas such that the final product is easy or convenient to use. A possible case of conflicting ideas in computer innovation would be creating more detailed, high-definition images for internet websites while at the same time reducing the number of mouse clicks for producing them. This is an example of the type of multiple-objective innovation that Steve Jobs worked on.

Steve Jobs criticized PowerPoint and other formal presentations (Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 2011). These forums set up an asymmetric, oppositional dynamic that discourages free and open discussion. They are non-collaborative. They go against the Zen principle of avoiding premature positive or negative choices. Hands-on experience with (and ongoing adjustments to) alternate designs is a better approach to new product decision-making.

Intensity as Artistry and Simplicity for the Consumer

An intense process of innovation does not imply a messy or unsightly product result—something new but appearing thrown together. Here is where intensity plus Eastern philosophy yields the artistry of an innovator like Steve Jobs. Good artistry means that intensity of work effort is hidden beneath the surface of the product such that the final design—the lines and curves seen by the consumer—is visually and aesthetically pleasing. To the consumer, the design should project an attractive simplicity that conveys ease of use and convenience. The consumer is drawn to the product. A customer service specialist at the Apple store in Fair Oaks Mall, Fairfax, Virginia, cited “easier to use” as the reason why he believes customers prefer Apple to other companies’ computer products (personal interview by author, December 8, 2012).

An Apple motto was “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” (Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 2011). This motto conveys the minimalist approach of Zen Buddhism. The combination of simple but artistic design on the outside of a product with an intensely innovative effort on the inside evokes the appearance of “effortless mastery” in Chinese Daoist philosophy. (Steve Jobs was also influenced by other philosophies, such as the minimalist Bauhaus design movement.)

Other Parallels to Zen in Innovation

The innovation intensity principles presented here are not unique to Zen and East Asian philosophies. Other writers present arguments that parallel the Zen approach to decision-making. Frank Portnoy, for example, states that a major aspect of good decision-making is to wait before taking action. The longer the delay, the better. Do not simply adopt the first solution that comes to mind. One should deliberate and take all perspectives into account before deciding (Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, 2012).

Several recent articles on show multiple parallels to Zen principles. These articles include discussions of “Jugaad” technology in less-developed economies, targeted innovation in China, and the technique of generating new products through “mashups” of existing ideas.

Elements of Zen are particularly applicable to innovation in developing economies such as India and China.

Elements of Zen are particularly applicable to innovation in developing economies such as India and China. Here, intuition and consumer experience can be usedto minimize product functionality and cost, to make things simpler for low-income customers in emerging markets. Apparent ease of consumer use on the surface, however, may require major intensity factors in the underlying innovation process as discussed above.

Jugaad innovation in India embodies Zen principles such as: use of intuition, experience-based decisions, simplicity/minimalism in product design, and the intensity factor of generating “creative tension” from different approaches to innovation. Innovation should be sensory-intuition driven, by observing and listening to the consumer, rather than primarily logical-deduction driven. Using long chains of reasoning to maximize multiple, but not always necessary (or too high-tech) functions of a product may drive manufacturing costs to prohibitive levels in developing countries. Please see the article “Jugaad: Lessons in Frugal Innovation,” by Mitali Sharma, published February 27, 2012..

Regarding China, Winter Nie states that, “The Chinese are innovating in a uniquely Chinese manner…” The Chinese approaches of “on-site” and “tailored” innovation mirror the Zen philosophy of creating ease, intuitiveness, and simplicity of product experience for the consumer. For example, “…mobile phone producers in China cater to these needs by offering features such as handsets that contain six to eight speakers for playing audio or talking in noisy spaces. …phones [are] available at half the price of those offered by traditional market players such as Samsung…” Please see the article “Chinese Innovation – Lessons from the East” by Winter Nie, published September 5, 2011.

Conclusion: Zen and the Fullness of Time

To recap, intensity in Zen favors collaborative, deliberative and conceptually integrated decision-making, aided by intuition, multiple sensory experience and full awareness of the changing technological, business and consumer environment.

The innovation intensity concept embraces a certain amount of paradox. Intensity does not necessarily mean working very hard over a short period of time. A long period of hard work will usually yield a better innovation payoff. A long period of work is more in tune with Eastern philosophy. Why? Because:

1) A long period of study and experience is probably needed to understand all aspects of an innovation issue, including causal factors internal and external to the company.

2) A long period of concentration may be needed to overcome one’s own ego, passions and biases, which can distort a rational perception of the problem and solutions. In particular, Zen teaches that one must avoid premature positive or negative attitudes about an issue; be “choiceless” and integrate opposites. This also means taking the time to let go of personal investment in outdated ideas. Holding on to an old idea is a choice!

3) One must allow time for intuition to come into play as a creative force, in addition to conventional linear-logical thought processes. It can take a while for intuitive insight to occur—a “light-bulb” effect or linkage when thoughts about problem resolution come together all at once.

Zen intensity in innovation is not about the amount of time you work, but about how fully you and your company use that time in bringing to bear different types of thought—logical, integrative, intuitive, imaginative—and different sensory/experiential processes. This type of intensity should help companies to go beyond incremental improvements and achieve radical innovation outcomes.

By Gary W. Davis

About the Author

Gary Davis is an economist working in Washington, D. C. He has published articles on Eastern philosophy for business innovation in several management journals, including Innovation Management. In 2009-2010, he published an article, “Contexts for Innovation,” in magazines in both the U. S. and Malaysia. The article recommends a synthesis of Eastern and Western strategies for business teams. He has studied innovation processes in connection with a position as research team leader.
Gary Davis has presented economics papers at seminars and national conferences (e.g., of the Southern Economics Association and Society of Government Economists). He holds Master’s degrees in Economics and Public Administration and a Doctorate in Public Administration from George Mason University, Virginia.

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  • 3Di

    Brilliant article. “Intelligence” is much more than intellect. There are multiple intelligences, or multiple aspects of “intelligence”. It’s unfortunate that Gardner failed to consider the intelligences described here – intuition, sensory, etc. Many thanks.

  • Jonas

    excellent post – more of it!