Step-by-Step Learning vs Creative Learning

Are you the type of person who seeks recipes and follows them to the T? Most people are. This is one of the things I dislike about the innovation space, where there’s a whole industry devoted to spreading innovation methodologies. The reason they exist? Methodologies are persuasive because uncertainty is unbearable to the people leading organizations.

Methodologies have their value, but there’s no such thing as a step-by-step process to create exponentially better solutions that result in billions of dollars in growth for a business. And anyone who says so is full of themselves. As I said before, do you think Elon Musk comes into a conference room to with a deck full of methodologies? Walt Disney? Steve Jobs? Bill Gates?

More useful than a deck full of methodologies is having an arsenal of mental models in your quivver; but that’s a post for anothe day. Why? Because innovation is messy, life is messy. Innovation is as much about attitude and perspective as it is about process; the same goes for life.

I went to a Montessori school when I was child, so I was taught to learn by playing, figuring things out on my own. So I’ve never been inclined to stick to what the manual or an “expert”says. I’ve never feared uncertainty because it’s more fun to me to figure things out. Most people are not like this, and preferr a step by step approach.

People who go through life with a “step-by-step” mentality usually do so by staying within a known lane. But what happens when that lane changes direction? They can’t go to their manual to see what they should do next. Whereas people who go through life with a creative learning approach are the ones who are better at adapting; they’re usually the ones who are changing the direction of things.

Think about it this way:

  • Musicians follow step by steps to learn how to play the piano, guitar, or any musical instrument. But you have to develop new steps to create new music.
  • Cooks, chefs, learn to cook by following step by step recipes. There are recipes to create the same pie, meal, over and over again. But you don’t create a new flavor by following the same steps as before; you have to break them.
  • Martial artists learn techniques in a step by step manner, but a fight is not choreographed; they have to create within the chaos.
  • Painters learn techniques in a step by step manner, but they create a new piece by combining, eliminating and repurposing techniques from other domains.

No matter the domain, we all start out learning step by step. But, if you do things the same way as everyone else expect the same results as everyone else. To innovate, you have to try an entirely new approach.

Bottom line: Innovation, like life, is an experiment. You try stuff, see what works and doesn’t, you learn, you iterate and you try again better informed. What happens in between all these “steps” is not clear from the outset.