Understanding the difference between reality and model of reality (knowledge) is perhaps the most important lesson in innovation

In this article you will learn about a powerful concept that helps you become a better innovator and product developer. We call this concept the reality – model of reality dichotomy.

Heikki Immonen, Karelia University of Applied Sciences

In a nutshell, the reality – model of reality model teaches us that to succeed in innovation we have focus on developing a good and reliable model of reality, i.e., knowledge, because all our ideas and actions are based on that model of reality, and not the reality itself.

It’s a question of whether or not you have a good map when navigating a strange city.

NOTE: This article is to a large extent based on ideas developed by cyberneticists, complexity scientists and systems engineers. See Heylighen & Joslyn (2001), Siegenfeld & Bar-Yam (2020) and Dori (2016).

Participants of The Spaghetti Tower challenge exhibit three different types of innovation behaviors

In his 2010 TED talk, Autodesk’s Tom Wujec describes the results of a team-building exercise originally developed by Peter Skillman, called the spaghetti tower challenge (Wujec, 2010).

In this exercise, teams are given 20 sticks of dry spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and a marshmallow. Each team has 18 minutes to build as tall tower as possible, which can hold a marshmallow on top.

Surprisingly, young children did well in this exercise, while most adult teams did poorly. Wujec explains that children started experimenting right away, while adults spend most of their 18 minutes planning, only to discover that their design, which they built on the last minute, fell down. Teams of children were only beaten by teams of specialists and subject-matter experts. Specifically, engineers and architects where able to build the highest towers.

Children didn’t trust their knowledge (model of reality) and got it updated fast via tests

Let’s look at children’s behavior from the perspective of our reality – model of reality dichotomy. As Wujec explained, children started experimenting right away with spaghetti and the marshmallow. This experimentation, i.e., doing an action in the real world and observing the results, allowed them to naturally update their model of reality.

Perhaps it is children’s natural impulsivity and passion for doing that allowed them to start learning from the get go. Perhaps they had not yet been thought to “plan” and “design”. Regardless of the reason, their updated and more accurate model of reality allowed them to produce structures that did not fall.

Non-specialist adults trusted their erroneous knowledge (model of reality) without realizing it being wrong

When we look at the behavior of teams consisting of non-specialist adults, we see the opposite of what children did. These adult teams failed to realize that whatever prior knowledge they had was not sufficient. They spend most their time planning, only to discover that the tower fell down as they placed their marshmallow on top.

Implicitly, the adults had assumed that the marshmallow was much lighter than it actually was relative to the strength of the spaghetti sticks. This is why the structure was not ready to hold the weight. They had a poor model of reality, which lead them astray. Imagine navigating in strange city with a map from another city.

Wujec describes that when these adult teams were given another chance to try the challenge they would succeed and build high towers that would not fall. Their initial failure in their first challenge, was enough to update their model of reality, and align it better with reality.

Specialists trusted their knowledge (model of reality) knowing that it is a good model

The third group, architects and engineers, did best. From the perspective of our reality – model of reality dichotomy, these experts had a high-quality model of reality. Due their education and professional experience, they understood structures well, which allowed them to build the highest towers that would not fall.

It is important to not be fooled to think that specialists have always been specialists. In fact, in order to become a specialist, you need to be like a child and get experience. This is the only way you can develop a good model of reality that serves you well.

Innovation is about building a good model of reality

What the above means, is that you need to be an expert of the situation at hand to create solutions that work. To become an expert, you need to learn like a child.  This way you are able to quickly build a realistic model of reality.

If possible, speedup your learning by learning from others. By educating yourself, you improve your understanding using relevant accurate models of reality that others have already built. In many cases, this tends to be faster and cheaper than making all the mistakes yourself.  

  • For young innovators this means that you need to be humble to learn all you need to learn.

Creativity, evaluation, idea, experimenting, learning relative to dual model of reality and model of reality

Armed with the dualistic reality – model of reality representation many key concepts from innovation and problem-solving literature and practice fall in to place.

Let’s look at how observing, creativity, evaluation, experimenting and learning fit with our dual model.

Observing is about updating your model of reality via observations

Observing is fundamental. Observing updates the model of reality based on what we observe happening in reality. At a higher level, observation requires for you to think in advance what is going to happen and why and then see if your prediction holds true or not. When you observe like this, you naturally discover errors in your model of reality.

In fact, this is pretty much how science works. Science seeks to discover causal (cause and effect) relationships by making predictions based on a model of reality, and then seeing what happens.

  • At Toyota, going to where action takes place and observing is called going to the “gemba” (Liker, 2014)

Creativity is about using your knowledge to design an idea

Creativity is often defined as internal process that results in new yet valuable ideas. In relation to our reality – model of reality dichotomy, creativity is a generative internal process based on our model of reality. When we are being creative, we use our model of reality to generate an idea.

We know from experience and research, that the more diverse experience and knowledge-base you have the more chances of creating something truly innovative you have. It’s like having more building-blocks. The more you have, the more combinations you can create. (Arthur, 2011)

  • If you run out of good ideas, look around for inspiration.

Evaluation is about using your knowledge to do an internal test or simulation of your idea

Evaluation is the reverse of creativity. When we evaluate an idea, we use our model of reality, to see if it is good from the perspective of what we know of reality. This is why inexperienced people value their ideas higher. The less you know, the more likely you are to believe that you have a great idea.

When you have a large pool of ideas, evaluation can be seen like a pruning process. In pruning, you remove dead or otherwise damaged parts and are left with only viable ideas.

  • Don’t fall in love with a single idea. Instead, generate a pool of potential ideas. This way it is easier to evaluate them more objectively.

Experimenting is about testing your idea in reality and updating your model of reality

Experimenting is a close relative of the observing process. As in observing, you are putting your model of reality to test. The main difference is that in experimenting you are actively doing something that would not happen otherwise.

Similarly, as with observing, a high-level experimenting requires you to predict in advance what will happen and why as a result of your experiments. If things don’t go as predicted, you know that there is an error in your model of reality.

  • When testing a new product with potential customers, try to think and predict in advance customers’ feedback and rationale for that feedback. If you can predict people’s response to a new situation, you know that your understanding of their behavior is good.

(In-direct) Learning is about updating your model of reality by learning from others or via insight

Because of our unique cognitive capabilities, we humans have developed an indirect form of updating our models of reality. Instead of experience or observing someone else experience the reality directly, we can transmit bits and pieces of knowledge (models of reality) via communication. Think of symbols, talking and stories.

With the rise of the internet, indirect learning opportunities are greater than ever. The challenge of course is to not learn erroneous models of reality. Having a wrong model of reality can be much more harmful than no model at all!

Another way to indirectly update your model of reality, is insight. When you are having an insight, you are generating a new piece of knowledge based on separate, but connected pieces of knowledge you have.

About this article

The writing of this article was supported by the INnoVations of REgional Sustainability: European UniversiTy Alliance project. . This project is funded by the Erasmus+ Program.

The content of this article represents the views of the author only and is his sole responsibility. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.


Arthur, B. (2011). The Nature of Technology: What it is and how it evolves. Free Press

Dori, D. (2016). Model-based systems engineering with OPM and SysML (Vol. 15). New York: Springer.

Heylighen, F., & Joslyn, C. (2001). Cybernetics and second-order cybernetics. Encyclopedia of physical science & technology, 4, 155-170.

Liker, J. K. (2004). Toyota way: 14 management principles from the world’s greatest manufacturer. McGraw-Hill Education.

Siegenfeld, A. F., & Bar-Yam, Y. (2020). An introduction to complex systems science and its applications. Complexity, 2020.

Wujec, T. (2010). Build a tower, build a team | Tom Wujec, TED, available at: