Try starting a creative project and you’ll hear one of two things:

“We should plan methodically and slowly, taking care of every detail.”

“No, we should just throw caution to the wind and go for it!”

Scientists generally take the first approach, while artists often take the latter approach. While they seem very different at first, they have much more in common with each other than you think.

The Art

If you want to understand more about the art of innovation, you need to look at an innovative artist. Brian Eno is a good example. He’s been doing great stuff since starting as a member of the groundbreaking band Roxy Music in the early ‘70s.

Eno, like all artists, had trouble coming up with ideas when he was working on his second solo album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). He was smart enough to recognize the situations that did get him out of creative jams. Along with artist Peter Schmidt, Eno developed Oblique Strategies, a series of “One Hundred Creative Dilemmas.”

It’s a card deck that users can consult when they’re creatively stuck, similar to the I Ching. The cards have sayings like “Your mistake was a hidden intention” or “Go to an extreme, come part of the way back.” The idea is if you free-associate with these, you’ll break your creative logjam.

Brian Eno’s willingness to examine what he was doing also caused him to create a whole new kind of music. Bedridden after a car accident, he was unable to turn his radio up over the sound of a rainstorm. Eno realized that music could be a part of the environment as much as a painting could. He became one of the pioneers of what’s now called ambient music.

Eno has since gone on to become one of the music industry’s most in-demand producers, working with artists such as David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2, and Coldplay. As you’ll see later, Eno’s approach might have more to do with the science of innovation rather than the art of innovation than is first imagined.

The Science

As long as computers have been around, people have been playing games on them when they should be working. Or worse, making games when they should be working. That was the case for Ken Thompson, a computer scientist at Bell Labs. However, he claimed his game, Space Travel, was a serious simulation of travel to other planets.

In the 1960s, Bell Labs was participating in the MULTICS project, which was a groundbreaking attempt at building a reliable “information utility,” the forerunner of what we might call “cloud computing” today. It pioneered many modern operating system features, but it was horrendously slow and over budget. Bell Labs pulled out of the project. However, Thompson and his colleague Dennis Ritchie worked out their ideas for a simpler system, which they dubbed “Unix,”and which they used to run Space Travel.

Thompson and Ritchie improved their system and their colleagues at Bell Labs added their own improvements. Unix really took off after they published a paper on the system in a prestigious computer science journal in 1974.

Unix is a classic example of what Clayton Christensen calls a “disruptive innovation” in his classic book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Most “serious” computer users scoffed at the system and said it was too primitive, but programmers at universities and research labs kept improving on it. Today, in the open source forms of Linux and the various BSD versions, it powers a good chunk of Web servers.

Unix was much simpler than most other operating systems. The system encouraged programmers to design software using a building block approach, combining existing programs together instead of building monolithic monsters that did everything.

While Unix is a good example of a “scientific” approach to software design, advancing by small changes and experimentation, it really has more in common with the art side of innovation.

Art and Science in Innovation

Take the idea of art and science working as separate spheres, and throw that out the window. Now, think about how they can work together in innovation. You’ll suddenly find more people using art and science at the same time to achieve great results.

For example, though Brian Eno worked through inspiration, including singing nonsense lyrics to be filled in with words later, he was also methodical about how he worked. Paying close attention to how he worked led him to create ambient music.

An operating system such as Unix appears to be a product of engineering, but its designers operated on a path closer to inspiration. For example, they could make changes just to see what happened. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, it wasn’t too big of a problem. Just go back to the last good version and try something different. They were open to the art of innovation by thinking through different ways of changing the system. Then, they put those to work by using the science of innovation.

The way that art and science have borrowed from each other shows that you don’t have to choose between one or the other when innovating. You can have your cake and eat it too, whether you’re just throwing ingredients together at random or methodically following a recipe.