Wired to Innovate

In writing the Innovation and Neuroscience chapter, I was surprised to learn the extent to which our brains are "wired" in a way that is conducive to innovation.  In Professor William Duggan's book Strategic Intuition, he explains how the neuroscience field is revealing some interesting insights into how new ideas are created.  He cites several important works that do two things:

They debunk the long-held idea that the two halves of the brain are either creative (right brained) or analytical (left brained).  Everyone thinks with their whole brain.

The process of solving a problem is based on the idea of "Intelligent Memory", whereby the brain selectively searches stored memories in an answer to a problem. 

What this means is that our brains are "wired" to seek out relevant solutions to posed problems without bias as to whether they are creative or analytical.  This supports an idea that I have long held that random idea generation is of little value in the innovation process.  If we want to find new ideas that are useful, the most important thing we can do is to do the hard work of clearly defining the problem we are trying to solve.  This is easier said than done, and honestly, where the bulk of the work in innovation needs to happen.  We've all had this experience.  Once we struggle with finding a new solution, when we are able to reframe a problem it seems to solve itself.  This requires us to let go of our initial perceptions about our innovation goals, and when we allow a new perception to emerge, then the problem can be defined differently, allowing a new solution to follow.

This then leads to the question of how we know a problem or solution is right.  When random idea creation comes to a close, the ideas selected are often the ones we already know are right.  How do we know when a new idea could also be right?  Dr. Robert Burton focuses on this question in his book On Being Certain.  In that book, he describes the mechanism for how we know what it is that we know.  This post won't do the details justice, but suffice it to say that Burton and Duggan build on the same recent neuroscience research, and although they have a different focus, their work is highly complementary. Both of these thought leaders emphasize the importance of intentionally directing our mental focus on our specified goal.  Both of them also recognize the importance of being able to let go of an initial perception so that the brain is free to fully explore new connections.

When it comes to establishing a process for innovation, it is important that we establish conditions that enable our brains to a) know what we are truly searching for and b) allow them to search our memories freely and "intelligently". When I was researching the topic to write the chapter, it made me think about how modern day management techniques can actually be counterproductive for innovation.  I see organizations either micromanage or over-prescribe a solution, or go the opposite direction and allow random idea generation into the process.  Neither way will work.  In the next post, we'll look at some specific ways we put up mental barriers to innovation.  For now, start to become conscious of how you are thinking about a problem, and how you are establishing criteria for success.  Try to make sure your initial goal is to define the right problem, not prescribe a type of solution.