Scientist at work

Drive Innovation by Widening Your Boundaries

by Christopher Meyer on 12/31/2009

In a well-written article in this month’s Wired, Jonah Lehrer describes how important thinking wider is for innovation.  More importantly, he underscores how inherently difficult it is even for the best scientists in the world.

Lehrer points out that science is a deeply frustrating pursuit.  Over 50% of the time, experiments fail.  Scientists define failure as experiments that return data other than expected.  Even the best struggle with accepting the data often blaming the method.  It’s as if they didn’t want to believe the result.  Lehrer points out that this behavior is normal. Brain research shows that while we have the capacity to be objective, our bias is to not be.  We typically search for data that confirms already held beliefs.

If so, how does innovation occur?  Most frequently in settings where different belief and knowledge systems are pushed together such as lab meeting presentations where scientists have to explain their research to the less informed using metaphor and analogies. This flies in the face of the standard quests for productivity and efficiency that engage only those who are most knowledgeable and/or seek to remove variation where ever it’s found.

When working with Mazda I was struck by how they were more likely to bring overlapping disciplines into technical problem solving whereas at Ford the bias was to involve only those who were deeply knowledgeable about the issue at hand.   Thomas Kuhn seminal research in studying scientific revolutions argued that paradigm change was visible only to the “very young or very new” to any field of study.

What are the implications for innovative leaders?

  1. Thinking wider is stimulated by trying to express your ideas using metaphors, analogies, drawings, etc.  This is particularly true when working with people who have less knowledge about your issue.
  2. Working wider takes us outside of our comfort zone which forces us to confront alternative ways of perceiving and doing.  This helps make invisible yet limiting assumptions visible
  3. Designing wider starts with observing problems in action.  Watch what people are trying to achieve and the barriers they encounter rather than starting off with questions.  Closing our mouths seems to also remove some of our blinders.  Granted, observation without talking is not normal…that’s why it’s good.
  4. Starting wider argues for casting your net one step further than you normally would.  For example,  if your goal is to provide better self-service, look at companies who have this particularly well regardless of industry or location.
  5. Competing wider begins with shifting influence from the center to the edge where there is higher likelihood contact with customers and new ideas.  For example, if you’re considering  a new low cost product or service, design it in a developing economy.  It’s not surprising that Tata’s Nano is  the world’s least expensive car.

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