Zen Philosophy for Stretching Innovation Space-Time

The non-duality principle of Zen philosophy suggests a more intensive approach to the dimensions of innovation “space-time.” Business teams should stop following a simple sequential procedure in which new ideas are accepted or rejected almost as soon as they arise. Instead, they should take extra time and create a “learning space” or study environment for all of the new ideas in place of the typical reactive, judgmental, for-or-against decision-making process. Connections between these ideas may lead to further innovation opportunities.

Potential Innovation Benefits of the Zen Non-Duality Principle

There is an ancient principle of Zen Buddhist philosophy that is very much applicable to innovation today. The “non-duality” principle is traditionally ascribed to Jianzhi Sengcan, the third Chinese Chan (Zen) patriarch, who lived predominantly during the 6th century AD. There is actually very little in the historical record about Sengcan. Other early Zen patriarchs, such as Bodhidharma and Huike, also taught the non-duality principle.

Sengcan stated: “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. …If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinion for or against” (Osho, Zen: Its History and Teachings and Impact on Humanity, 2004, p. 51).

As a practical matter for would-be innovators, the Zen non-duality principle argues for withholding premature judgment. Following this principle—for at least a substantial time—during the idea creation, clarification and development phases of the innovation process can yield many of the following possible benefits (some of which may overlap):

  • Avoids or dilutes “groupthink”, “bandwagon” and other conformity effects commonly seen during innovation efforts.
  • Maintains an atmosphere of ambiguity necessary for genuinely creative innovation. The human mind, of course, has a natural tendency to go in the opposite direction; it wants to reduce uncertainty. (See Mike Pinder, “16 Cognitive Biases that Can Kill Your Decision Making,” Board of Innovation, www.boardofinnovation.com, August 2, 2017.)
  • Keeps the initial focus on problem definition and identification rather than on premature and ineffective solutions.
  • Allows time for collaboration and consideration of underlying complementarities and convergences between apparently opposing or conflicting ideas.
  • Gives introverts more time and opportunities to share their own new ideas, with less fear of rejection.
  • Allows more time for the accumulation of new ideas from employees with different backgrounds or different organizational/technological perspectives.
  • Allows more time for idea refinement and preliminary testing or prototyping.
  • Supports the Design Thinking process of innovation.
  • Facilitates repetition of a new idea to improve its chances of being heard and understood, especially by business managers (who may be very busy with day-to-day company operations and financial status and not pay attention at first) (Adam Grant, Originals, 2018).
  • Allows more time for proponents of a new idea to obtain a coalition of managerial, institutional or external allies (Adam Grant, Originals, 2018).
  • Allows more time for new ideas to arrive or be evaluated externally by open innovation/crowdsourcing.
  • Argues against premature PowerPoint presentations favoring one idea over another, which may inhibit critical discussion (Steve Jobs).
  • Allows more time for innovations to develop from the connections between new ideas. Seeing connections between ideas is a key aspect of innovation, according to the late Steve Jobs. Such connections may develop into a patterned idea network, which, in turn, may suggest further innovations.

Intensify Innovation Space-Time—Zen with a Dash of Einstein

Obviously, the non-duality principle as presented here for innovation purposes is not meant to be an excessively drawn-out, endless and purist version of traditional Zen philosophy as taught by the early Chinese patriarchs. Some of the latter would quietly meditate for years on end. Businesses of today do not have that luxury. They operate in a highly competitive, globalized economic environment. This includes rapid changes in business models, consumer tastes and technology (especially IT). The next disruptive innovation threat may be just around the corner.

The Zen perspective recommended here can be characterized as a different, more intensive approach to the dimensions of innovation “space-time” (to borrow a term from Albert Einstein). Business managers and teams should stop following a simple sequential procedure in which new ideas are accepted or rejected almost as soon as they arise. Instead, they should take some extra time and create a “learning space” or study environment for all of the new ideas in place of the typical reactive, judgmental, for-or-against decision-making process. The new ideas should be examined for their connections to each other, to the problems or customer needs they are intended to solve, and to available company resources, technologies and business models.

As noted above, possible connections between ideas are especially important and should not be overlooked. Two apparently opposing ideas may share fundamental business values or underlying technological frameworks. Combining several different ideas, or constructing an idea network, may yield a more innovative product with more useful consumer functionality.

Building in extra time for the consideration of a larger number of new ideas does not necessarily imply an interminable delay for the entire innovation process. One can use existing business time frames more intensively, effectively placing a higher strategic value on innovation. Within an existing workday, workweek or work-month, schedule more time for innovation. Assign more people to an innovation team, drawing upon different perspectives from across the entire company (and perhaps from outside the company—e.g., from a local university or through crowdsourcing). Assist them through the introduction of project, task, team and time management tools/apps. Again, the company should creatively “stretch” and “fill up” its previous conception of innovation space-time. Accelerating change in the business environment may well demand it.

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 also gave a presentation on innovation to a U. S. Federal government seminar. He holds Master’s degrees in Economics and Public Administration and a Doctorate in Public Administration from George Mason University, Virginia.