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Innovation: Geniuses and Perseverers

February 27, 2014


In past posts about innovation, I’ve discussed the so-called “myth of the lone genius.” Creativity gurus point out that even acclaimed inventors, like Thomas Edison, were surrounded by a talented team. Although a team player, Edison was also a genius and perseverer. He is probably most famous for his invention of the incandescent light bulb, but he and his team tried nearly a thousand different materials before achieving success. He is quoted as saying, “The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” That’s perseverance; but, perseverance complements rather than diminishes the importance of genius. Geniuses are very important in helping us look at the world in a new way or in discovering something new or in experiencing life more fully.


Both Malcolm Gladwell and Robert Greene peddle the notion that geniuses are gifted people who are extreme in their dogged pursuit of a skill. In his book entitled Outliers, Gladwell repeatedly discusses the “10,000-Hour Rule,” asserting that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.” In his book entitled Mastery, Greene doubles the number to 20,000 hours that must be spent trying to master a skill. In a book review about Greene’s tome, Lucy Kellaway writes, “The greatest weakness of Mastery is that it peddles a fiction. In true life, we can’t all be geniuses.” [“Genius explained, with help from Mozart,” Financial Times, 5 December 2012] She continues:

“As if to prove otherwise, he keeps telling us that Charles Darwin was no good at school – but from that it doesn’t mean that the modern louts leaving school with no GCSEs today will go on to write an On the Origin of Species. Most of us will never get anywhere near mastery at anything because we are either too stupid, too lazy, too unimaginative, too happy, too poorly educated, too encumbered by children and elderly parents or too unlucky. And no book will alter that.”

That may sound harsh, but Kellaway has a point. I suspect that geniuses are born, not self-made. Does that mean that we have no hope of being creative or generating a novel idea or mastering a subject? No. We may not have been born a genius, but we can all have the occasional good idea. Our chances of having such a thought are significantly increased if we learn a few tricks and persevere. Stephen Shapiro insists, “Your brain is wired for ‘business as usual,’ so if you really want to innovate, you’re going to have to shake up your neural pathways.” [“7 Ways to Outsmart Your Brain to Be More Innovative,” American Express Open Forum, 14 November 2012] He continues:

“Your brain makes the assumption that because you were alive yesterday, what you did previously is safe. Therefore repeating the past is good for survival. As a result, doing things differently, even if it seems like an improvement, is risky. Perpetuating past behaviors, from the brain’s reptilian perspective, is the safest way. This is why innovation is difficult for most individuals and organizations. Innovation is about change. It is about doing something different than you did previously. It is about trying something that you have not done before, and therefore may feel is a danger to your survival.”

Tom Agan agrees with Shapiro and states bluntly, “You’re blind as a bat when it comes to seeing innovation.” [“Why You’re Blind to Innovation,” Fast Company, 16 November 2012] Paul Hobcraft calls this phenomenon being “cognitively trapped.” [“The Innovation Bunker – Our Cognitive Traps Part One,” Paul4innovating’s Blog, 1 May 2013] He explains:

“I suspect we are all cognitively trapped most of the time. We are all more ‘hard-wired’ than we would care to admit too. That cognitive bias that ‘permits’ us to make constant errors of judgement, ignore often the advice around us and certainly gloss over the knowledge provided or staring us in the face. Innovation does need us to break out of these cognitive biases if we want to really develop something very different, more transformational.”

So how do we rewire our neural pathways to help us break out of our cognitive traps and be less blind to innovation? Shapiro insists, we can outsmart or trick our brains by learning some simple techniques. These techniques can be used in one or more of the innovation process stages identified in the attached infographic prepared by the staff at EducationCloset (click to enlarge). Personally, I believe that the best chances of coming up with an innovative idea occur when you ask good questions. Creative people are always asking questions. This is especially true in the “Observe” stage of the innovative process. I stress the importance of asking multiple questions because no single question will ever lead you to the best solutions. As Mike Brown puts it, “Whether you are trying to prompt creative thinking in others or yourself, take every opportunity to ask a different question!” [“Creative Thinking Exercises — Ask a Different Question,” Brainzooming, 3 October 2013] Even if your questions are all along the same line of inquiry, Brown notes that you can get the creative juices flowing just by using alternative words to ask the question. Shapiro agrees. He writes:

“Ask better questions. Einstein reputedly said, ‘If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.’ Instead of asking for broad ideas such as how to increase revenues, first identify the specific growth opportunities, untapped markets, emerging trends and current roadblocks. Then find solutions to those more focused challenges.”

Shapiro writes, “Recognize that people want their pains solved more than anything else.” So you might begin the innovative process by asking what pain needs to solved. “Be the aspirin,” he writes. “Innovation is not just about creating something new and different. It should solve a problem that people have. Infomercials are especially effective at demonstrating this.” Once you’ve discovered “the pain” that’s need soothing, Shapiro advises that you should look beyond subject matter experts for answers. He explains:

“Keep looking. Although this sounds simple, don’t stop with the obvious answers. Keep pushing until you are out of ideas and then still push forward. Ask ‘who else has solved a problem like this?’ A whitening toothpaste was developed by studying how laundry detergent whitens clothes. A medical device manufacturer learned how angioplasty balloons expand and contract by studying car airbag deployment.”

By asking “who else has solved a problem like this,” you are really forcing yourself to look at the problem from a different perspective. Forcing you to look at a problem from different perspectives is one of the techniques used by almost all creativity coaches. One way of ensuring that you view a challenge from a number of perspectives is to gather a group of people from different backgrounds and fields to discuss it. They create what Frans Johansson calls The Medici Effect. Shapiro also likes this approach. He explains:

“Work with people who are not like you. Find people with different backgrounds, personality styles, and interests. Appreciate their contribution to you and your professional efforts. For example, I am someone who is disorganized and despises plans or planning. As a result, the first person I bring on to my team is a detail-oriented project manager who can make sure … that I get everything done.”

Another benefit of working with a diverse team is that it will help you overcome what Shapiro calls “confirmation bias.” As he explains it, confirmation bias occurs because the brain looks for evidence that confirms your established believes and “rejects anything that is inconsistent with your belief structure.” If you don’t believe that confirmation bias exists, you’ll have a hard time explaining why liberals and conservatives generally watch television channels and read newspapers that support their world view. Most of us are simply not as open to new ideas as we might pretend to be. Shapiro indicates that one of the most valuable members of your team may be the one who assumes the role of devil’s advocate. He explains:

“Avoid getting wed to your ideas by getting someone to play devil’s advocate. Any time you think to yourself, ‘Wow, this is a great idea,’ get someone to poke holes in your logic. Don’t go to the same people for input. Seek out people who you suspect would reject the idea. Learn from them. Refine your solution based on numerous perspectives, not just your own biases.”

Agan puts it more bluntly. “Embrace annoying people. You know the ones, whose comments at meetings drive everyone up the wall. By being wired to challenge conventions and assumptions, they’re more likely the ones who see the new paradigm emerge first.”


Beyond the team environment, creativity coaches insist there is much we can do on our own to broaden our thinking. Take different routes to work. Watch movies you don’t normally enjoy. Read magazines and books outside your area of expertise. That kind of thinking led to the enormously successful and informative TED conferences that expose people to the best ideas from every conceivable field. One final recommendation that most creativity gurus offer is to slow down. We live in a hustle and bustle world in which we are barraged with information. Taking a nap, meditating, or participating in any activity that takes your mind off of work can help clear the clutter and send you off in the right direction. Shapiro writes, “This allows you to gain access to the creative parts of your brain. Aristotle found his greatest breakthroughs while napping. One company found that they could speed up the development of new product ideas through meditation first thing in the morning.”


The bottom line is this: If you want to come up with more new ideas, you need to look at the world in new ways. You don’t have to be a genius (although that helps), but you do have to persevere in your efforts to broaden your horizons if you want to be more creative.

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