Simulating Innovation

by Drew Boyd

Simulating InnovationPeople can improve their innovation skills by mentally simulating the use of innovation tools. Chip and Dan Heath in their book, “Made to Stick”, talk of the importance of mental simulation with problem solving as well as skill-building:

“A review of thirty five studies featuring 3,214 participants showed that mental practice alone – sitting quietly, without moving, and picturing yourself performing a task successfully from start to finish – improves performance significantly. The result were borne out over a large number of tasks. Overall, mental practice alone produced about two thirds of the benefits of actual physical practice.”

Mental simulation is the imitative mental representation of some event or series of events. It is our brain conjuring up scenarios and imagining how they will play out. We do it all the time. We mentally simulate driving to the grocery store, talking with our boss, or getting a back rub. It prepares and sharpens us for things that lie ahead. Mental simulation can also be used to practice activities that you do or want to learn.

Here is how I use mental simulation to strengthen my innovation skills with the S.I.T. method:

1. Observe Novel Ideas: I take note of new and interesting things that I see throughout the day and I try to imagine how they were invented. I look for one of the five S.I.T. patterns that might explain the invention. If I can spot the pattern, I try to mentally simulate using the pattern to create the novel object. I make a mental list of the components. I select the component that might lead to the invention. I apply the template. I use Function Follows Form to work backwards to the new idea. The most interesting of these end up as a blog post in the monthly feature called “Innovation Sighting.”

2. Pick Objects Randomly: I look for mundane things and try to mentally simulate applying an innovation tool to it. For example, I might select a bottle of ketchup or a mailbox. I also look at services like mail delivery or shoe shine. Then I mentally work through the steps of the S.I.T. method using one of the patterns. I break it into components (in my head), apply a template, etc.

3. Pick Tools Randomly: I pick one of the five S.I.T. patterns (Subtraction, Task Unification, Multiplication, Division, and Attribute Dependency). This is a bit tougher, but it builds deeper mastery of the templates. I look around my surrounding environment and imagine using that template on some activity that is going on at the moment. For example, if I am in an airport going through security, I imagine using Attribute Dependency to create a connection between two independent variables around me. What if the speed of the line varied with the experience of the security agents. Could they set up a line with just the most experienced agents and perhaps charge a premium to go through it (to save time)? Or, imagine using Task Unification. I create the Virtual Product: travelers have the additional task of screening other travelers. How would that work? What would be the benefit? Who might want such an invention?

Creativity is a cognitive task. Simulating the task in unfamiliar, random situations builds “innovation muscle” for when I need it in real situations. Practice makes perfect.

Don’t miss an article (1,550+) – Subscribe to our RSS feed and join our Continuous Innovation group!

Drew BoydDrew Boyd is Visiting Assistant Professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati and Executive Director of the MS-Marketing program. Follow him at and at

No comments

Leave a Reply