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Honore Gasa
Innovation Inside the Box
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In a past life, I worked as a researcher inside a team of specialist innovators for a large corporation. I attended dozens of innovation sessions, most of which were of the old-fashioned brainstorm type where ‘no idea is stupid’ and where we were encouraged to think ‘out of the box’. What I realised after a while, was that we tended to come up with the same ideas over and over again, irrespective of who was in the room.

Since then, advances in neuroscience have provided some useful insight as to why this might happen and what we can do to come up with better ideas.

There are a few reasons why trying to 'think out of the box' usually ends in dismal failure.  Some key ones are:

  1. Our conscious minds are really bad at making new connections
  2. There usually aren't enough new connections in the room
  3. We are problem solving animals who are resistant to change

The problem of the conscious mind

The part of the brain that deals with conscious thought is actually very small, and the strongest neural connections we have short-cut the thinking process to come up with a quick solution.  So, when we are tasked with 15 minutes to come up with ideas (on post-its, of course!) we are only scratching the surface of what our minds hold, and the most obvious ideas emerge.  The weaker connections from which great innovation often comes (unlikely links between ideas) don't make it to the party.

No diversity, no new thoughts

Organisers of innovation sessions often try to bring diversity into the group by inviting people from a range of different functions (R&D, Marketing etc.) However, these functions are often related and all form part of the company - so they bring similar views of the company and the world.  In addition, participants are likely to hold some sort of degree and live a relatively privileged lifestyle. The pool of neural connections is limited and very often different to the markets you are trying to innovate for.   

Problem solving and resistance to change

Once we have found a solution that works, we are motivated to maintain the status quo - it is less stressful to do so.  The neural pathways we have found to solve a particular problem become strong as we repeat the solution each time we encounter the problem.  There are two consequences of this:

  1. We don't engage in creative thought unless we have a new problem to solve.  Asking people to brainstorm new ideas for toilet cleaners, for example, will not yield great innovation because we already have solutions to the problem of cleaning a toilet.
  2. The strongest neural connections will emerge and the 'new ideas' that result will simply be variations of what we already have.

So, how do we counteract these effects to come up with great innovation?  Simply put, we need to create a 'box' in which to work.

  1. Define the problem well
  2. Provide lateral stimulus
  3. Tap into the unconscious mind

Defining the problem

While it seems counterintuitive to coming up with something unique, we need to give people a proper problem to grapple with, boundaries to work within, and these need to be carefully designed.  The benefit of creating the right 'box' is that you force people to focus intensively on a solution and the solution is likely to be feasible for your company.

A good start is to review your category and identify 'frustrations' or unmet needs that consumers have.  Ethnography is a great source of this kind of insight, since consumers are often unable to articulate these frustrations, and observing them performing a task or going about their daily lives can give surprising results.  Past research and social media monitoring can also throw up interesting results.  Whatever insight you use to define the problem, this process needs to happen before any ideation process can begin.

The 'box' also needs to be defined from a company point of view.  Where are the no-go areas? Is there a limit to what the product/service will cost to make or sell?  And so forth.  This will determine how far from the core of the business the ideas can be, as well as any other important parameters.  There is no point coming up with ideas that the company will never implement or that do not serve the right purpose strategically.

Providing lateral stimulus

If everyone in the room is from the same background or company, the chances are that the number of available neural connections is limited.  These can be increased by immersing the group in the appropriate or lateral environments.  One of the most successful sessions I was involved in was for toilet cleaners.  Before ideating, we went on a number of excursions to talk to people like dentists, nursery school teachers and consumers from different walks of life.  Interestingly, some of the best ideas could be traced back to the interview we had with a dentist around how he goes about cleaning and fixing teeth (which are enamel just like a toilet bowl!).

Alternatively, one could involve people from different backgrounds in the ideation process itself.  If this is the favoured route, then considerable effort would need to be made to make them feel comfortable enough to share ideas and to inform them of the constraints within which your company operates.

Tapping into the unconscious mind

Once you have the box (the problem and its parameters) and have created or imported more neural connections to work with, the critical next step is to ensure the weak or obscure connections (rather than the stronger habitual connections) can be made.

Research from Carnegie Mellon University in the US proved that when three sets of people were given the task of choosing an imaginary car based on multiple needs, the group who were worst at optimising their choice were those who were forced to choose immediately.  The second group were given more time, but didn't make a great choice either.  The third group were given a problem and then a distracter task for a few minutes after which they were asked to make a choice.  This last group did significantly better. 

FMRI scans of the participants revealed that the part of the brain that was activated when they were briefed on the task continued to be active while they were involved in the distracter task.  This is called 'unconscious neural reactivation', and those who showed the most reactivation were most likely to make the best choices.

This has serious implications for the process of ideating itself.  Firstly, try not to be so serious about it.  Don't lock people in a boardroom for hours on end. Create moments of distraction, go and chat to people, have some fun, get some fresh air and you might be surprised by what comes out!


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