Are Our Innovation Models Wrong?

Stephen DeAngelis

January 29, 2013

According to two prominent innovation gurus, companies have pursued innovation using flawed models in the past. Columbia Professor Bill Duggan asserts that “the vast majority of the methods used to try and come up with innovative ideas are based on a flawed understanding of how the brain works.” [“99 Percent Of Innovation Methods Are Based On A Brain Model We Rejected A Decade Ago,” by Max Nisen, Business Insider, 2 January 2013] And Gary Hamel insists, “We’re never going to build a truly innovative company without a gene-replacement therapy.” [“Gary Hamel On Innovating Innovation,” by Steve Denning, Forbes, 4 December 2012] Duggan’s assertion was made during an interview at the Columbia Business School. [“From Intuition to Creation,” Ideas at Work, 28 December 2012] During that interview he stated:

“I was surprised to discover that 99 percent of innovation methods that people use today are based on a model of the brain that neuroscientists abandoned more than a decade ago. In essence, these innovation methods tell you to do some kind of research or analysis, and then you brainstorm to come up with your innovation idea. The theory of brainstorming is that you turn off your analytical left brain, turn on your intuitive right brain, and creative ideas pop out. But neuroscience now tells us that there is no right or left side of the brain when it comes to thinking. Creative ideas actually happen in the mind, as the whole brain takes in past elements, then selects and combines them — and that’s how creative strategy works.”

I remember a cartoon that showed a scientist writing at a blackboard. On the left side he had written all sorts of equations that looked very impressive. He had then drawn an arrow from those equations that pointed to a black box in the middle of the blackboard. Finally, he had drawn another arrow from the black box that pointed to a text box containing the words, “The magic happens.” Duggan believes that brainstorming is akin to such black box thinking. He stated, “When it comes to the actual idea for your innovation, these methods leave it to the magic of the creative right side of the brain.” I’ll talk more about brainstorming later.

 

In Denning’s interview with Hamel, Hamel stated, “A huge amount has been talked about and written on innovation over the last ten years or so. Most of us understand that innovation is enormously important. It’s the only insurance against irrelevance. It’s the only guarantee of long-term customer loyalty. It’s the only strategy for out-performing a dismal economy. So people know that it’s important.

 

But people also sense that there’s a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality.” That is basically the same message that Duggan is trying to get across. Like Duggan, Hamel doesn’t believe that innovation is something that you can conjure up through magic. He states:

“Innovation isn’t like something that we’d like to have and so we just go out and get it. Organizations were built to do things that are antithetical to innovation. Organizations were built around principles that deify conformance, control, alignment, discipline and efficiency. The principles that organizations have at their core are antithetical to innovation. It often feels like we’re trying to get a dog to stand on its hind legs. You can do that, but you can’t get a dog to do that for long. It’s a DNA level problem. A dog has the DNA of a quadruped. Once you turn your back on the critter, and you put away the treats, the dog is back on all four legs. Any innovation effort that doesn’t start by acknowledging that innovation itself is deeply counter-cultural. We’re never going to build a truly innovative company without a gene-replacement therapy. Without that you’re going fail. You’re going to try something and then be disheartened when you discover that three months or six months later, the dog is still peeing on lamp-posts rather than doing the tango.”

Hamel doesn’t believe that companies can become innovative overnight. It takes time to create a corporate culture of innovation and to train people in innovation techniques. “You have to train people how to be business innovators,” Hamel claims. “If you don’t train them, the quality of the ideas that you get in an innovation marketplace is not likely to be high.” If you want to have innovative company, he says, you have to have “training, funding, and accountability for it at every level of the organization. Not one out of a hundred companies has done this.” Denning notes that 1 in a 100 is a pretty grim statistic. Hamel agrees. He claims the statistic is so bad because innovation takes systematic effort and most companies don’t exert that kind of effort. One reason, he believes, is “that leaders still think of innovation in these mystical terms.” Such notions, Hamel states, are hogwash. He claims to have “taught thousands of people how to innovate” and that “they have created billions of dollars of market value.”

 

I suspect that Hamel would agree with Duggan that brainstorming is not a very useful tool for generating innovative ideas. It’s too simplistic and doesn’t really require a company to invest the kind of effort that Hamel believes is necessary. Duggan states:

“Brainstorming works fine when you don’t need an innovation. People brainstorm mostly to solve problems they already know how to solve with their current expertise, at least as a group. When you brainstorm, you really throw out ideas from your personal experience — these come to mind fastest and strongest. If you have a problem that the total personal expertise of six people can solve, then brainstorming is very efficient. But if the solution actually lies outside their personal expertise, brainstorming is a trap — you toss out ideas and get conventional wisdom, not an innovation.”

Duggan implies that corporate culture is critical if a company is going to be more innovative. “People should cultivate curiosity about how exactly things succeed,” he states, “and cultivate ‘presence of mind’ where they deal calmly with problems and let their minds wander freely rather than look for quick answers because they feel stress.” He continues:

“For firms it’s harder, because they have myriad procedures in place already that can work against creative strategy. For example, in a typical planning cycle, does the firm start with the question ‘Where would we like to innovate if we could?’ If not, it’s already too late, because everyone has already started down a road of goals, initiatives, timelines, and deadlines. Everyone gets busy; now the only ‘creative’ time they can spare is two-hour or two-day brainstorming. Instead, a company should do creative strategy well before the start of its planning cycle, so by the time it has to plan, it actually has an innovation to implement. But that requires a company to turn its whole cycle of procedures upside down. That’s a tall order for any company.”

Catherine Courage, a leader for a Silicon Valley product design group, agrees that corporate culture is critical to becoming more creative. In a TEDx Kyoto talk she offers three suggestions about how to go about changing your corporate culture to become more creative [“TEDx and Creativity: How To Transform Corporate Culture,” by Penelope Rivas, volunteermatch.org, 4 January 2013]. The first suggestion deals with environment. Cruz writes:

“According to [Catherine], environment is the, ‘foundation of creativity’. Many modern business environments appear plain and simple. You want to create spaces that are conducive to imagination, ideas and original thinking. Take a cue from a child’s classroom, filled with a variety of colors, shapes and spaces. Companies like Google and Microsoft have already jumped on the bandwagon by creating work environments that are more colorful and open. How is your current corporate environment encouraging creativity?”

The second of Courage’s recommendations deals with experimentation. Cruz writes:

“Experimenting is the key to innovation. For example, Thomas Edison made a thousand failed attempts before inventing the lightbulb. [Catherine] talks about the dangers of creating a culture where employees are afraid to fail. Instead, embrace failure by recognizing its role in success. Encourage your employees to take risks, think outside the box and of course, fail.”

Courage’s final recommendation deals with storytelling. Cruz explains:

“The art of storytelling can be incredibly influential in the business world. Presentations filled with dull bullet points, lack of emotion and no context can decrease employee engagement. The next time you give a presentation, think about the ways that you can incorporate storytelling. Effective storytelling can increase employee engagement by encouraging conversations which can lead to new, innovative ideas.”

You can watch Courage’s full presentation below.

 

 

Although Courage seems to accept the left brain/right brain paradigm dismissed by Duggan, she agrees with him and Hamel on two points: First, traditional models of innovation need to be revised; and, second, innovative companies have an innovative culture. It’s part of their DNA. That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t have to continue working at it. Hunting is in a lion’s DNA, but that doesn’t make finding its next meal much easier.