When I visited China a few years ago, I found myself in conversations about the differences between US and Chinese culture when it comes to innovation. Our hosts were very interested in accessing US innovation, and described Chinese culture as one that struggled with its inception. “It’s difficult for us to go from zero to one; but no one is better than us at going from one to ten.”  In China, they say that if you want to make money, first build a road.

Based on the magnificence of Shenzhen and Guangzhou – both of which made me feel like I was in the original Blade Runner movie – I had to agree with their ability to build roads and turn things up to ten.

On the long flight back, my colleague Min, who grew up in China before emigrating to the US, shared a Chinese idiom that gave me a valuable insight, and it’s an insight that can help anyone who is creating a culture of innovation.

The idiom points to a story. An apprentice is instructed by his master to draw as snake, and he does so. 

The master then instructs his pupil to add something to the form of the snake.  The apprentice, flustered because of his uncertainty as to what the right answer was, and uncomfortable with asking questions, had a sudden leap of inspiration and added some legs.

The apprentice showed the results to his master, who informed him: “You are an idiot. You do not understand the form of the snake.  Consider: you could have added a forked tongue, a forked tail, something snake-like in form that would add to and enhance its nature.  But with the legs, you have destroyed the snake.”

The idiom that points to this story and ones like it is huà shé tiān zú (画蛇添足) which means drawing legs on a snake. It means ‘to spoil something by adding that which is superfluous.’  It means: leave well enough alone.

An English version of this might be ‘to gild a lily,’ which is to try to make something beautiful even more beautiful, but in doing so, spoiling it.

In China, it would be very common for someone, suggesting a new idea, to be silenced by being reminded of this story. You are drawing legs on a snake.

Recently I revisited this story with a VP for a Chinese financial institution, drawing the snake with legs.  He was familiar with it. 

After we reached the point of the master’s reprimand, I added my own perspective: “But I disagree with the master.  I like legs on a snake.” 

The VP looked surprised, so I continued.  “The only thing wrong with legs on a snake is that we haven’t gone far enough.” 

I made a few additions to my drawing:

“We can add a few more legs. We can add wings, maybe some horns.  If we want to breathe fire, how else will we ever get to a dragon, unless we are brave enough to put legs on a snake?”

The VP looked down at the drawing, thoughtfully, then slowly back up to me.  “Peter, you know the dragon has great significance in Chinese thought.” 

I nodded. “Yes, I’m aware…”

He smiled and leaned forward.  “This has opened up a new chapter in my life.”

I’d love to help you breathe some fire of your own.  The next time you have an idea, before deciding whether or not it’s any good, consider the possibility that you won’t know until later, until you find out where that idea can take you.  A new idea is not a destination, it’s a first step on a road to the future.

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