Practices for Probing: An Innovation Strategy

Ursula Le Guin Quote on uncertainty

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next” Ursula Le Guin

What is true of life is even more true of innovation and creativity: working with the new means not knowing what comes next. Innovation thrives in an intolerable place of the unknowable and coaxes new certainties to emerge via a process of probing - an innovation strategy.

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next” Ursula Le Guin

We Are Blind and Thoughtless in the Face of the New:

If the radically new is exaptive and emergent it is nowhere till it begins to happen. Because of this foresight, prediction, trend analysis, and deep knowledge of the past will not be of any direct help. Radical novelty is ontologically new.

It is a truly shocking surprise.

Of course, it might make sense and be explainable in retrospect, but that does not help one in the middle of co-emerging with the new.
If we are blind and thinking is of little help — what’s left?

How do we work?

1. Creativity Happens When All Action is Probing

Reality, when looked at from the perspective of creativity, is simply too chaotic, dynamic, relational and emergent to gain a clear summative understanding. We are always in the midst of an ongoing world that is shaping us as we shape it in highly dynamic and emergent ways.

How to use Probes for Innovation
You need to probe to uncover possibilities

If you try and pause things, and analytically pull it apart and understand the pieces all you will have is a narrow understanding of the pieces — but not the distinct but connected dynamic and emergent whole. Knowing root causes and developing predictive models will not work. So what can we do?


Highly dynamic systems cannot be “understood” but we can perturbate them in specific experimental ways. The system will respond, and then we can adjust (both ourselves, our tools and our environment) and probe again.

In this way, we are “making a path in walking it.” We are attuning and transforming ourselves to make ever move successful novel assemblages emerge via a series of iterative probes and feedback/feedforward loops.

This active probing involves developing exaptive tests (blocking & following).  Like the fish, we will co-emerge with a new world (we, and our transformation, are never outside of the process).

Different Types of probes for Innovating
Twop types of probes

2. If It Cannot Be Thought, How Does One Think It?

Creativity is non-conceptualizable in its beginnings.

So, how does one conceptualize the non-conceptualizable?

We are always coming back to this: thinking is involved, we clearly cannot dismiss it entirely from the innovation process. But, we also know that the pathway to radical novelty cannot be centered on ideation (happening in the head/brain).

The way out of this paradox is not to develop better thinking techniques or mental exercises to make the mind more creative. The answer is strikingly simple: we can quite easily sidestep the paradox by realizing that creativity is the outcome of practices: before we have an idea we are already doing something or making something or engaged in something novel that we cannot explain and ultimately at this stage do not need to explain (if we could).

Before developing this, we need to reflect on the role thinking does and does not play in our everyday lives. You reach for your cup of coffee or walk across the room and sit down. You do not need to think through and plan out your every action and muscle movement. You reach for and drink from your coffee cup without much thought, just as you make it across the room and fall onto the sofa without any real thought.

Much of our lives involves a tacit “know-how” — we do things — without requiring much — or even any “know-what” (complex thinking, knowing and planning). Many of the most skillful things we do — say rolling a kayak or breastfeeding are not things we could even put into words and explain without great effort. Often when we try to think about or articulate what we do in these nuanced practices we lose our way.

Thinking — knowing what — subsists upon and arises out of a far broader world of embodied and engaged know-how. The foundations of our lives, practices, values, and sense of being are ultimately unconceptualizable — it rests and thrives in action. Changing diapers, holding hands, serving dinner, watering plants, worrying when you see a police officer all ground our lives in ways that exceed ideation.

Innovation and Tacit Behavior

Engaged forms of play, puttering, tinkering, improvising, messing about, open experimentation, intentional stupidity, or curious observation while using novel tools in novel situations — are all common examples of how we sidestep the innovation paradox.

These are all examples of active open-ended experimental practices of making and doing: probing.

Now what is critical in these practices is that we are doing two things:

  1. Making in a hands-on manner (at any scale), and
  2. Attending to the emergence of novel bodily sensations  (affect) — feeling that something interesting, odd or curious is happening.

This mix of open experimentation (doing) plus attending to differences that arise alongside vague feelings is a critical part of the beginning of the journey to making-discovering the new. Remember this is not the “kernel” of an idea -- the fish is feeling this directly as an embodied affect — and so too is a community.

At this delicate early moment of early doing-sensing, novelty can easily slip away, for it is not something we can recognize -- it is too new for that — in fact, we most often mis-recognize it as a mistake — an error to be corrected.

The mindset of play, tinkering, puttering, and probing are helpful precisely because they do not seek to overly conceptualize or judge. It is the rush to ideate that derails the early phase of the creative process.

We can see this as a probing process:

  1. We openly experiment these feelings of difference are followed
  2. Our experiment takes on a heading as a feeling evolves into vague hunches arising through the force of the experiment itself (wayfinding).
  3. In activity, skills emerge alongside vague hunches, which lead one to follow a direction that slowly develops via intuitions, and swerving experiments into novel practices
  4. That only much, later on, are fully conceptualized as a new “idea”.

Most of our lives are lived in this space of vague sensing and direct action. Clear and specific thought is a much smaller part of our daily lives than we imagine.

Probes: Emergent Wayfinding for Creativity & Innovation

We can break down this process of emergent wayfinding into discrete steps for the sake of analysis (in reality they are far more mixed and continuously feedback/feedforward into each other).

There are two phases:

  1. Embodied Doing
  2. Embodied Knowing

In the first phase knowing is implicit and tacit — the knowledge is non-articulable but exists directly in the emerging habits, practices and embodied skills, and vague feelings. Humberto Manturana terms this “knowing-how without knowing-what”. In the second phase these tacit forms of knowing slowly become articulable and eventually turn into abstractions that can stand on their own as fully-fledged concepts.

Emergent Wayfinding for Creativity:


A. Making-Feeling: Sensing Through Making:

Innovation requires Probing Making Feeling
Making and doing are pre-requisites to innovation. And you need to feel your way...

Experimental doing-with (novel tools, environments and skills) and letting sensing-feeling tendencies vaguely co-emerge from within objects-in-the-making and return into the process.

Joining resonances and tuning rhythms at an embodied/environmental level. Events arise and are stabilized when possible — these both take time and emerge as new forms of time. Vague sensations of “Interesting” and “puzzling” tendencies and events are felt and might rise to an intuitive level of attention. Change is lived in, but not represented. Empathy.

B. Making-Dialoging: Thinking With Making:

Innovation must Probe Make and have Dialoge
Innovation is a dialogue - as everything has agency

Active following of an emerging form/tendency and responding (in the experiment): making-thinking with the emerging quasi-object crossing one or many thresholds (of capacity and stability). Signs act as triggers. Embodied skills, tools and practices co-develop in a back & forth between things and actions. Matter/things co-evolve forms immanent to the process. Non-conceptual know-how co-emerges with a “world-in-the-making” (concrete skills for repetition, expansion and discovery). We are living with things (as opposed to knowing things abstractly). Sympathy.


A. Thinking-Making: Making With Thinking:

Probing an innovation strategy Thinking Making
Innovation, or the new, requires thinking-making because thinking on its own yields the known.

A vague idea about the thing/action (what is it?) emerges and flows back into the making-using-developing process. Quasi-concepts become useful & are tested, stabilized & reactivated. Nascent “theories” are proposed & put to work/tested.

B. Thinking-Stabilizing: Thinking About Thinking After Making:

Probing Thinking Stabilizing for innovation
Worlds stabilize as the new emerges....

Abstraction of concepts from objects/practices. These abstractions feedback (know-how) and feedforward (theories, paradigms, approaches, modes of being) into new iterations of the process. Abstraction.

For our purposes what matters here can be summed up thus: creativity is not a “thing” that some, or all of us, possess — it is a worldly ecological practice in which any of us can participate.

Thus creativity, like any other phenomenon that we might imagine happening in the mind/brain, is a dynamic, multi-centered, embedded worldly phenomenon/activity. For too long we have divorced thinking from making, but to avoid the Innovation Paradox and allow for novel innovations to arise we need to realize that making is thinking, and doing precedes conceptualization, and this all happens in a robust highly networked environment.

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