What can opera tell us on innovation?

When looking for inspiration in innovation, 19th century opera may not be the most obvious place to look for it. However, apart from it being worth for the music, there are indeed hidden gems that can teach us something about innovation.

The scene I would like to refer to is Richard Wagner‘s Siegfried, first act, second scene, a part of his Ring cycle. That scene is preceded by two other opera evenings, Rheingold and Valkyrie. The story up to that point is quite messed up. To save his power, Wotan relies on a hero who will use his sword ‚Nothung‘. Unfortunately, the plot had gone wrong at the end of Valkyrie, and Wotan had to destroy his sword, and kill his hero Sigmund.

In the scene we discuss here, the Nibelung Mime is guarding Siegfried (Sigmund‘s son) and the pieces of Nothung. But even as a gifted armor smith, Mime is not capable of welding those pieces together and fix the sword for Siegfried.

At that point, Wotan enters in disguise as a wanderer. He challenges Mime (who considers himself very smart) to a contest: each bets his head to be able to answer three questions posed by the other. Mime starts by trying to outwit Wotan and asking questions he considers difficult, but where he would know the answers himself (being utterly smart). Wotan, being a god, does know the answers, and asks three questions in return. Mime easily answers the first, and knows the name of Wotans sword, wich is the second question. But the third question is: Who will mend that sword? The question Mime obviously is has not been able to answer for years.

Wotan then concludes:

Dreimal solltest du fragen,
dreimal stand ich dir frei:
nach eitlen Fernen forschtest du;
doch was zunächst dir sich fand,
was dir nützt, fiel dir nicht ein;

Thrice ’twas thine to ask questions,
thrice I stood at thy hest:
but empty knowledge soughtest thou;
the want that lies at thy door,
thy own need, knowest thou not;

But how does this relate to innovation? Asking the right questions is at the beginning of significant innovation. Phrasing the question too narrowly around an existing solution will result in an answer that is too close to the existing solution. Very often a key question in innovation is: how can we improve the product’s performance, or what functions are customers missing. Such questions imply, that the current offering is fine, we just need more performance, or more functions, because we know the customers. Hardly ever the question is asked about what the customer wants to achieve.

So the next time you approach a customer, don’t ask for new functionality that is required. If there was a fairy that would solve one key challenge for your customer, what would that be? Unless you have access to a fairy, such key challenges are not easily solved. But often leads to interesting discussions on what really matters in the customer’s world.

And if you do need a fairy, there are many operas where they show up occasionally.

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