Reverse engineering would seem to be the opposite of innovation. The process of taking something that has already been created and figuring out how it was done is arguably innovation’s antithesis. It sounds like cheating or even espionage, like a shameful rip-off of someone else’s inventiveness, taking an easy shortcut instead of doing original work.

And yet cognitively speaking, successful innovation is remarkably like reverse engineering. But instead of applying that strategy to an existing product or technology, it’s applied to an imagined future state. It’s about defining what we would like to achieve, whether that’s a solution to some particular problem, a greater competitive edge, an improved product, a new source of revenue, a fresh insight or discovery, simply satisfying one’s curiosity, or some combination of the above. Then, with an objective identified, we’re positioned to imagine ways to achieve—or reverse engineer—that outcome

When we think of innovation as reverse engineering, it changes conventional logic. In order to figure out how something works, we first need to know what it does. Ideas are not the driver (as critical as they are) but rather a product of figuring out how to reach a desired outcome. Thinking this way prompts questions like “How can we…?”, “What would need to occur in order to…?”, “What do I need to learn/create/discover…?” and “What if…?” Having a clear objective focuses our curiosity, defines our task, and tells us whether or not we have succeeded. It can also give us powerful insights to guide our ideation.

When you’re struggling to make innovation real and robust, it may be because you’re not clear enough about the desired outcomes. Innovation is primarily about “how,” but it begins with “what,” and that well defined “what’ is itself a question. It’s by striving to answer that question that we explore ways to make such a future happen.

So, the next time you’re trying to reach an innovative breakthrough, you may want to go back (or rather forward) to what exactly you want to achieve, and force yourself to think in considerable detail about the future that you’re trying to reverse engineer. Set aside the “how” for awhile, and reconsider the “what.” What do you really want and how would you know if you had it?

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