Innovation, translation, and the brain

It's no secret that I believe that the ability to translate market needs into viable offerings that meet those needs is the key to successful innovation.  It's also no secret that I believe that this ability does not reside in any one discipline, educational background, or company process.  Last year I wrote three posts, each about an element of translation that I felt was important for an organization to embrace the capability. The three elements were Awareness, Capability, and Evaluation.

I still believe that these three elements are necessary for an organization to embrace translation, and I have been focusing on what it would take to actually recognize and build it.  In the post about having the capability to translate, I ask the question about whether or not the organization has the right people to perform this task.  This past year, I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly it is that a person who is good at translating is actually doing?  What skills do they posses?  Is it learned?  If so, then how do you teach someone, and by extension an organization, to make accurate connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, disciplines, process phases, or stakeholder needs?  Is it innate?  If so, then how do you teach an organization to recognize these skills, accept the differences, and embrace the outcomes?

Where I have landed is that everyone can learn better techniques and processes such as deriving motivations from contextual research, or evaluating intangible attributes.  However, even with the best techniques and processes, some people are able to make these connections, and others are not.  Once that pink elephant in the room was called out, the rest became more clear.  It gave me a different perspective on process, and has allowed me to continue to hone my best practices in identifying these people because these skills don't fit on current HR checklists.

Some people may not like this conclusion, but it's really no different than recognizing that people possess different physical abilities that make them better than others at physical tasks, so why wouldn't different mental abilities exist as well?  An exploration into the field of perceptual psychology has shed some light on this subject for me as well, especially when we look at recent research into synesthesia. 

Synesthesia is a perceptual experience, where some type of sensory crossover takes place.  For example, a person with synesthesia may hear sounds when they see certain colors, or they may experience a smell when they come in contact with certain textures.  Historically, synesthesia has been confined to describing specific sensory crossovers that are not experienced by the general population.  Recent research by experts in synesthetic perception, has broadened the understanding of what goes on in our brains as we perceive the world around us.  He has found that cross-sensory mapping is happening all the time, to the point that we take it for granted.  For example, dancing is a kinetic response to sound stimulus; a cross-sensory mapping ability that goes unquestioned by the general public.  They suggest that we only notice when people perceive sensory crossovers that are not commonly experienced by the average person.  It sticks out when someone sees a color and hears a sound, but we don’t find it odd that a person may hear a sound, and move their body in a way that mimics the rhythm of the sound.

The newest thinking actually goes so far as to define synesthesia as a consciously elevated form of the perception that everyone already has.  Just as people have varying degrees of physical abilities, it makes sense that varying degrees of perceptual abilities exist as well.  It therefore also makes sense that some people are naturally better at perceiving one type of input, such as consumer motivation, and mapping it to a seemingly disconnected output, such as an offering toward which the consumer will respond positively.  To put it bluntly, some people are better at making the connections necessary to create successful, market relevant innovation, and this skill is independent of which discipline they choose to study.

So what does this mean for translation ability?  Is it a form of synesthesia?  A form of creativity?  Much more work needs to be done before we will know for sure.  What is important is that we are beginning to develop models that support the idea that getting the right people in place to focus on innovation is an important first step.  We can then develop systems and processes to support them, rather than take the place of the human element.