Identifying new sources of growth has become increasingly more complex given the myriad of alternatives that new business models, strategic partnerships, advanced technologies, and other disruptive mechanisms offer us. Taking a systematic approach to finding these opportunities means veering from our usual mode of operations to a much more speculative mindset where the learning journey is as important as the destination itself.

Awaken your inner child

In 1968 George Land applied an imaginative thinking test that he had designed for NASA to 1,600 children ages 3-5, finding that 98% of them fell into the genius category compared to only 2% of adults. What happened over the years? Because we were taught to color within the lines, that there were right and wrong answers, we end up minimizing our ability to engage in “what if” thinking.

Taught to color between the lines, we’ve minimized our ability to engage in “what if” thinking.

Dissociating your prefrontal lobe

Priming ourselves for generative and speculative thinking is not enough if at the same time we bring along our egos, insecurities and personal agendas. The more aware we are of our surrounding, politics, and limitations, the more likely we’ll avoid taking risks and we will actively look for flaws on what other people present to us. We need confidence to be innovative, and that confidence comes from two places: our own experiences and the courage to try something that involves risk. In the absence of certainty, having your analytical self telling you the 1,001 ways “that won’t work“ will deter you from finding ways to make actually it work, therefore making it essential to dissociate your rational self from your intuitive self.

Dr. Charles Limb, an Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine was able to prove this point -and make it evident- by hooking up jazz players to MRI machines and monitoring the differences on their prefrontal cortex while playing music they had memorized versus jamming and improvising. The result was that when the musician was coming up with new music the self-monitoring area turned off and the self-expressive one turned on, which is analogous with generating new ideas and trying them out.

Shifting your perspective

Individuals and organizations rarely follow Einstein’s ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions’ recommendation. We have been trained to find flaws on ideas and to jump into solution mode quickly. When somebody presents us with a problem or challenge, we don’t usually pause, reflect, probe, and identify alternatives, but almost immediately we go straight into what that person can do to solve it. Acknowledging that we might be solving for the wrong problem can be one of the hardest things we do, therefore forcing us to slow down and consider the issue from alternative perspectives. In order to radically change the way we do things, its necessary to re-articulate the challenge facing us.

Consider what Alejandro Aravena and Andres Iacobelli did with their practice Elemental in Chile. In 2003 they were asked to build social housing for 100 families on a tight government budget, quickly realizing that doing that while treating the families with dignity was almost impossible because of the limited space they could offer. By working closely with the squatters who already lived in the communities, they realized the solution was to provide “half a good house” that would meet basic needs instead of an inadequate full house with the same square footage.

Acknowledging that we might be solving for the wrong problem is essential for success.

Connecting what you see

Over and over again we cannot believe it wasn’t us that came up with the latest product or service. Sliced bread was literally in front of people every single morning. Separating the handle from the razor to make more money seemed like a no brainer. We tune-out the world so we can handle more complex tasks. To avoid this we first need to be conscious of our surroundings and learn how to observe the world with fresh eyes. Less obvious or close-in sources of data can help us break away from our mental models, forcing us to reinterpret concepts and expand the available dimensions for any given problem or solution.

The final step is putting together those seemingly unconnected data points and finding ways to get them to make sense, much like how biomimicry uses nature for inspiration or even a random stimulus that can spark the right idea (e.g. religion, cooking, gaming, etc.). This cycle of awareness and association closely resembles what is indeed happening inside our brains. Remarkably, researchers found through MRI imaging that creative people have less white matter, slowing down nerve traffic due to a multitude of pathways, enabling ideas to collide to each other with greater ease and frequency.

Coming up with truly new insights that generate innovative results requires us to expand the way we look at challenges and identify new ways of dealing with them.

By Ramon Salinas

About the author

Ramon has 12 years of experience in and around entrepreneurship and innovation. He combines the practical hands-on experience of an entrepreneur with the intellectual rigor of an academic, to make innovation come to life within organizations. As an Innovation Advisor he co-designs and facilitates live creative sessions, including Imaginatik’s Growth Targets offering for front-end insights and opportunity identification.

His professional experiences include co-founding a magazine and being the CEO of an award winning advertising agency. He has worked with companies from more than 20 industries including Goodyear, ExxonMobil, Energizer, and Liberty Mutual. Additionally, he taught Entrepreneurship to business school seniors for 7 years, and holds a Master’s in Humanities from UDD and an MBA from Babson College.

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