Negative Space

(image via Michelle Spollen)

(image via Michelle Spollen)

James Utterback in his book “Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation” tells the story of the American ice industry in New England in the late 1800s. It was a thriving business. Companies would cut ice from frozen lakes and sell them around the world. In one instance, Utterback writes, “The largest single shipment was 200 tons that was shipped to India. 100 tons got there un-melted, but this was enough to make a profit.”

But innovation brought with it change. The ice harvesters were put out of business by those companies who invented mechanical ice makers. Thus, shipping was no longer an issue. You could make the ice in the city where it was needed.

These ice makers, however, were put out of business by companies who invented refrigeration. Why buy ice when you could make it in your own home? 

The sad thing was the ice harvesters could never see the advantages of the new technology of ice making when it came to market. They continued to try and survive by doing what had always made them successful: better saws, better storage, better transportation. The ice-makers could never see the advantages of refrigerators and adopt this new technology to their business model. Neither the ice harvesters or ice makers had the vision or capacity to see beyond what was known and successful to them at the time. 

There is a term in psychology for this way of thinking. It is called “pre-cognitive memory”. It means humans will typically only act upon what the memory of their past experience has taught them. Essentially, we limit ourselves by relying on only what we know. Our past limits our ability to change in the future.

A simple example is this. If you take a jar and fill it with flies and put a lid on it for a few days, when you take the lid off very few of the flies will leave the jar. Their memory of what is possible and its experience limits their thinking and actions. Only the boldest of flies will leave the container that serves as an artificial boundary.

The business world is filled with similar examples of once-thriving industries that never changed their status quo, even once the writing was on the wall. In 1960, the Swiss controlled between 85 and 90 percent of the world market in wrist-watches. Swiss watchmakers had a fine reputation for quality and reliability, and their timepieces were in demand everywhere.

Sometime in the 1960's, two Swiss engineers developed the world's first digital watch. A great technological breakthrough, you might think; but the engineers could find no interest in their own country in pursuing this new development. Try as they might, all doors remained closed. The repeated answer: “This digital toy will never replace the quality of a hand-made Swiss timepiece. No one wants this!”

After much frustration, the engineers ended up selling their invention at an industry convention to two companies--Texas Instruments in the United States and Seiko Watches in Japan. Twenty years later, the Swiss watch-makers controlled only eight percent of the world market. They’d denied the signs of onrushing change, and paid the price for their blindness.

The question is, how can we learn to see beyond our boundaries and embrace unknown ideas? One answer may lie in a centuries-old tradition from the American Southwest.

The Mescalero Apache are famous around the world for their "invisibility." They can seemingly blend into any environment and become unseen by the enemy, using minimal camouflage and trickery. Many accounts have been written of whole regiments of US soldiers riding a few feet away from an Apache warrior without observing him--out in the open and yet unseen. 

A number of years ago, I had an opportunity to spend some time with a Mescalero Apache elder who told me his tribe's secret. "We move in the negative space," he said. 

"I don't understand.”

"Look over there," he said, pointing to a grove of pinion pine. "What do you see?" 

"I see some trees, some rocks, some scrub brush." 

"Yes,” he answered, “But what do you see between the trees, the rocks and the brush?" 

"Between . . . ?” I asked, perplexed. 

"Yes, between. We rarely take note of the space that exists between objects. What do you see there?" 

"Why, nothing. It's sort of an empty space that just exists. It's created by the space taken up by other things. I never took note of it before." 

"Exactly! That is called ‘negative space,’ and it is where the Apache moves when he doesn't want to be seen. That is the secret of our invisibility. We stay in the negative space where we are never noticed." 

"Well, then, how do I too learn to be invisible? To move in the negative space?" I urgently asked. 

He quietly responded, "The first thing to remember is . . . it is always there."

Like the Apache warrior, we must remember that new ideas, approaches, and perspectives are always there. The secret is to constantly challenge yourself to see the unseen, the unknown on a daily basis. The gift of change is that it shakes up our current view of the world, better allowing us to see any negative space that exists. When we can do that then we can embrace the unknown. 

The reason the New England ice manufacturers and the Swiss watch industry were so blind to change was because all they saw was the known world. They could not see between their perceptions to the negative space, the unknown potential. Like the soldiers of the U.S. Cavalry, they passed by what they were seeking . . . and it was there all the time.