To Innovate Better, Get Surreal

Have you seen the Academy Award-winning La La Land, where Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance through the cosmos and experience alternate realities? Or the latest Apple commercial, where Lil Buck dances down the street, up the walls, over the marquee and beyond, transported by his AirPods? Maybe you’ve seen this Russian packaging that superimposes conflicting scales

Simply defined, surrealism strives to reconcile our dreams with reality. As Victor Hugo penned, “Each man should frame life so that at some future hour fact and his dreaming meet.”

The resolution of such wildly divergent polarities is quite an ambitious undertaking, no? Therein lies the power, as Carl Jung wrote: "The greater the contrast, the greater the potential. Great energy only comes from a correspondingly great tension of opposites."



Our world is full of surreal happenings: 

  • 10x thinking took over San Francisco years ago and continues to proliferate. 
  • Fortunes are gained and lost in days, not lifetimes. 
  • Children can print 3D objects, literally forming tangible objects from “dust.” 

Surrealism is oozing from our popular art and culture, and also from our technology.

Perhaps it should. I’m willing to venture that the invasion of surrealism is necessary.

It is necessary because innovations depend on it, and innovation has been stagnant. According to Robert J. Gordon, of Princeton, “With a few notable exceptions, the pace of innovation since 1970 has not been as broad or as deep as that spurred by the inventions of the special century [1870-1970]” (see his book and his TED talk). 

I have found that surrealism is a great way to subvert stagnation. It is necessary to dream beyond our reality, as Elizabeth Gilbert pleads in Big Magic: “We simply don’t have time anymore to think so small.”

Are not innovators like Da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk also surrealists? I think George Bernard Shaw would agree, given his statement: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

The practice of surrealism is required in order to achieve breakthroughs of any kind. Whether it’s social evolution (MLK’s “I Have a Dream”) or technology innovation (Ford’s answer to “faster horses”), we cannot achieve revolutions without imagining, without dreaming of a future very different than our current state. 

For me, I push myself and my team with these questions: 

  • What if we refused to believe that it takes 9-12 months to bring new consumer products to market? What if it took 30 days?
  • What if we could envision and share the final form of a new product without having to go through the expensive commercialization process? 
  • What if we could understand how a new package design would look in the context of the retail shelf, the digital shelf, the pantry shelf, and in my hand before it was ever put to paper? 
  • What if we could test new product concepts with photo-realistic imagery through online consumer research panels to understand if we have a winner before we even create a prototype or comp?
  • What if I could snap a picture of something that inspires me, perhaps in nature or while traveling, and apply it to fabric on my phone or find products for my home in that exact color?

What would an invasion of surrealism look like for you? How can you and your team take the plunge into surreal thinking in order to elicit groundbreaking solutions for your business? 

I recommend we: 

  • Get to know the surrealists. I’ve mentioned a few, and there’s Wikipedia.
  • Leap into surrealism using these exercises: 
  • Imagine the problem is solved. Write an Acceptance Speech for the success. Who will you thank? Why? (Then go find those people!)
  • Complete a sentence such as, “If I had half the budget, I would…” 
  • Answer a question like, “How could we solve this problem unreasonably?”

P.S.: Did you know that you can now get married at a Taco Bell?

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