Innovation, and the value of a good compass

old compass

Few anymore recall the value of a compass. In an age of GPS and digitization, when the phone in a pocket can navigate continents at a keystroke, a compass is far too demanding and too imprecise in the comparison. Like innovation or any creativity, it feels untrustworthy when easier answers abound.

A compass is a simple thing.

Run a magnet back and forth across a sewing needle, press the needle through a cork and float that on a bowl of water. The needle finds north. You’ve built a compass.

It’s hard to imagine, but with one eye on the North Star and a tool only a little more complicated than a magnetized needle, explorers turned insights and expectations into voyages of discovery. There is more to the innovation metaphor: To secure discovery, it cannot be the sole province of stories and a few brave souls. There must be plans for what follows, and a way for others to expand the path. But when the combination of science, faith, and adventure support each enterprise, New Worlds result.

In modern undertakings, of course, there is no excuse for faith when risk can be mitigated, and even innovation as a practice is climbing to a place more structured, more assured, more defensible. Even compasses grew more sophisticated. But when modern practices call for GPS coordinates — something unmistakable, something certain — the only reply can be what is known. Innovation and compasses beckon to that inner voice, to explore something new without promise of something assured.

Insights and a compass were certainty enough for Renaissance explorers in the age of discovery, and their entwined argument went like this: Pick a dependable crew. Lay in supplies. Be steadfast; the world is round. Put north on your right. Keep the Pole Star above the horizon.

A compass is a simple thing.

The difference between wandering, and exploring.

– James Janega



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