In 1439, Johannes Gensfleisch (better known as Gutenberg) created what might be the most revolutionary invention in history: the printing press. His press shifted the paradigm of communication, because people started to publish books, essays, and other written material more cheaply and in greater numbers than ever before. Through print, they shared their inspiring, sometimes crazy ideas and advancements over the following centuries, which eventually led to the technological revolutions of our time.
However, back in Gutenberg’s day, only 5–10% of the population could read or write—but the printing press still disrupted the course of history and changed the way everyone lived, then and now.
Such a radical change to our lives today seems almost impossible. Our attempts at change never seem to produce noticeable results—but that is because we are often so caught up in the idea of “innovation” for its own sake that we lose track of our most crucial tool: avant-garde. The term refers to new and unorthodox or experimental ideas, especially in visual, literary, or musical arts. Artists, writers, composers, thinkers, and engineers whose work opposes the mainstream each have their own kind of avant-garde.
In the mid-19th century, the French used the phrase “avant-garde” in a military sense, meaning “advance guard,” the group of soldiers who took the lead in battle. They were the ones who suffered the most painful losses, since they stood at the front lines, but they were also the ones to forge the way to victory, to cross borders ahead of others, and to investigate the enemy territory so they could outsmart their opponents. Through the origin of the phrase, we can see the impact the concept can have on us when we dare to employ it for ourselves. By taking risks and leading the charge in the front lines of experimentation and progress, we can reach essential breakthroughs in our creative endeavors.
Others, in the past and present, have benefited from this kind of motivated, perilous creativity: the invention of cars, of light bulbs, and even of the more recent Napster and Uber have all transformed industries and our daily lives. Just because most people believed these things couldn’t succeed or weren’t worth the time invested in them doesn’t mean the ideas shouldn’t have been tried.
You too can push past resistance and dare to be different. Breaking out of the societal constructs and even out of your own comfort zone will allow you to test boundaries and challenge the status quo. Instead of remaining locked in the system, trying to force innovation to occur, you need to let go and explore the endless opportunities ahead of you.
You can pursue creativity either horizontally or vertically. Horizontal creativity is simple. You copy things that work and improve upon them to make them more efficient or consumable. These slight variations will not help you in the long run, unless you already have a strong brand where you can add media value to your product. Without this, horizontal change becomes nothing more than a pricing game. Your other option is to exploit your avant-garde, the vertical creativity we call “the breakthrough innovation.” Although vertical progress is hard to imagine, because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done, you can only transform the world as we know it by using your avant-garde.
We live in a time when only the different, the unique, and the world-class are accepted. Companies and individuals need to harness their own avant-garde, so here are five steps to introduce that crucial element into your work:
1. Strive for Freedom
To achieve the vertical thinking necessary for avant-garde, you have only one rule to follow: “THERE ARE NO RULES.” Reporting structures, KPIs, predefined meetings, and similar constructs are all detrimental to thinking outside of the box. The avant-garde must be driven, organized, and structured by itself, which means there has to be room for sudden changes and untried methods.
2. Find Your Avant-Gardists
For the inspiration and the suggestions necessary to help you come up with sustainable ideas, involve those who show signs of vertical creativity: artists, daydreamers, freaks, and even people who the world writes off as incapable of functioning normally, like those with autism. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the community of independent thinkers. Never forget that there is always hidden potential in those already around you; find ways to uncover and then support this potential.
3. Develop the Right Atmosphere
Production and creativity thrive in the right environment. Just showing up and working toward your goal is crucial for any progress, but an atmosphere that encourages ingenuity helps your innovative troop to excel. You must find and sustain the essential environment for creative thinking and experimentation.
4. Accept the Radical
Speculation leads to creation. Sometimes the strangest thoughts can lead to the greatest ventures—but those ideas are often stamped out because of the expectation of status quo. In large corporations nowadays, you do not find many places where you have the freedom to test or even to voice wacky thoughts; instead, you are faced with an organization of streamlined and monotone people trying to practice innovation when they, much of the time, all have identical backgrounds and viewpoints, saturated in years and years of the same old management and processes. These companies would benefit from having even a small spot set aside where people can feel like they are in a “start-up” environment, with an entrepreneurial spirit and the flexibility to try new things. Fresh, even strange, ideas need to be accepted and promoted within every organization for true success.
5. Enjoy the Failures
Creation is a messy, edgy process that is anything but linear. You must be prepared for setbacks, failures, and conflicts. Foster enjoyment for this process instead of impatience. Diverse groups that focus on collaborative work will always run the risk of conflict and uncomfortable situations. Learn to accept this and allow the group as a whole to figure out how to proceed. Every now and then, you will hit rock bottom—but do not be afraid of the pain that comes from that. Don’t think of it as weakness. This vulnerability is the birthplace of all sorts of innovation. Eventually something new arises, and a positive environment allows those ideas to come together and gather momentum.
Every organization should have their own department for avant-garde, even if only a small unit. Although the work will not always be easy or produce obvious results, it will always take you somewhere unexpected—and, hopefully, somewhere fun as well! If nothing else, it is likely to boost your efficiency and progress, and as you reap the rewards of creativity, you will learn to enjoy the beauty of innovation.