Can Anyone Innovate?

Art Markman, Innovation, Smart ThinkingThis post is by guest blogger,  Art Markman, PhD, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations as well as author of Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys is our guest on this week’s Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz. Art explores thinking and has a passion for bringing cognitive science to everyone. Please join us to explore “Can Anyone Innovate” this Friday at 12pm ET/5pm GMT/9am PT on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz

The world economy is slowly trying to pull itself out of the doldrums, and as a result companies are trying to do more with less.  In these difficult times, innovation continues to be the path that many companies are trying to take to get them back on the road to success.

Of course, not every company innovates successfully.  And, we hold the great innovators in high regard.  Indeed, the death of Steve Jobs last year was deeply felt in large part because of his successful role driving innovation at Apple computer.

So, can anyone be an innovator, or is innovation the gift of a rarified few who are destined to change their industries?

The answer to this question is both happy and sad.

The happy news is that anyone can be an innovator.  The sad news is that most people are not prepared to take on that role.

One of the great advertising tag lines that Apple computer used was “Think Different.”  They populated those ads with pictures of influential people.  The implication was that these people somehow thought about the world in a fundamentally different way than the rest of us.

 In fact, the great innovators of the world have the same brains as the rest of us. 

They have two qualities that separate them from the rest of us.  They know a lot and they are able to find the essences of problems.

Innovators are people who have learned a lot about the way the world works.  They have what psychologists call causal knowledge, which is the knowledge you use to answer the question “why?”  This knowledge is crucial, because when you get stuck trying to solve a new problem, the solutions you know already will not help you.  Instead, you need to be able to understand the factors that caused the problem in order to be able to unravel it.

The difficulty with innovation, though, is that the solution to your problem often comes from a different domain of knowledge from the one you are focused on.  Apple focused on the user rather than the technology.  Speedo developed the Fastskin swimsuit by thinking about sharks rather than human swimmers.  James Dyson created his famous vacuum by thinking about sawmills rather than home cleaning.

In order to be able to draw knowledge from one domain to another, you have to be able to find a good analogy to the problem you are solving.  If you feel like you have gotten stuck while solving a problem, then that means that the problem is not currently reminding you of anything you know about that can help you to solve the problem. The way your memory works is that it provides you with information that is related to the way you are currently thinking about the problem, so when you get stuck, you need to change the way you are describing the problem.  Each new description will help to bring new information to mind.

The ideal way to describe a problem is to find its essence.  That is, to try to move past the surface properties of the problem and to figure out what is really at stake.  The best way to see what I mean by an essence is to think about proverbs.  A proverb like “You can’t judge a book by its cover” looks like it is about books and covers.  The essence of the proverb is its deeper meaning that the surface properties of any object are not a good reflection of its inner value.  If you practice finding the essences of proverbs, it will help you to develop the habit to find the essence of problems you are solving as well.

That is the happy part.  Anyone can be an innovator.

The sad news is that most people will not be innovators.  The key barrier to being a great innovator is knowledge.  To innovate successfully, you have to learn a lot about the way the world works in general—not just in your main area of expertise.  Steve Jobs did not know that knowledge about calligraphy would come in handy when thinking about computer design.  James Dyson did not know that an understanding of sawmills would be crucial to the development of a new vacuum.  Yet, they learned about these topics anyhow.  And then this knowledge was available when they needed it.

The people who are most likely to innovate are going to be the ones who have learned a lot about the way the world works.  Anyone can get on the road to innovation by being open to learning new things.  But, those people who have spent their lives acquiring knowledge will be ahead of the game.  If you are looking to innovate in a hurry, you need to find those people.


What keeps people from learning the causal knowledge they need to innovate?

How can a company agree on the essence of the problems it wants to solve?

What are the qualities that make someone learn about the way the world works?

Are there other barriers to innovation?

About the author: Art Markman, PhD is a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations.  His latest book is called Smart Thinking: Three essential keys to solve problems, innovate, and get things done.