Don’t ask the analytical mind to spot innovation opportunities

by Yann Cramer

Don't ask the analytical mind to spot innovation opportunitiesLet me start with a confession: I was tempted to write ‘why the analytical mind cannot innovate’. That would have been a more provocative title, something crisper and more catchy when it goes on twitter, but it would have been contrary to my beliefs and values. For I believe that there is a place for the analytical mind in the innovation team.

Yet, there is also little doubt that the analytical mind may indeed struggle with one of the roles at the forefront of the innovation endeavor: the observer.

An innovation, often start with an observation. The observer – the one that Tom Kelley calls anthropologist – spots a behavior, a way of doing things, a situation that everyone else considers to be normal because it is habitual, which, on reflection, proves to be unproductive, unpleasant, uncomfortable. A famous example is the observation that picking up a slobbery ball in the mud and throwing it away for your dog to fetch again and again can become an unpleasant activity if you have back problems, if you’re not good at throwing, or if you don’t like to smear your pretty leather gloves with dog saliva. Yet, until someone made that observation, which led to the invention of the ball-thrower, everyone would have thought that there was no other way, that this indeed was the normal and even ‘the right way’ of doing things.

Typically, the analytical mind won’t make a great observer of such anomalies, for it will instantly decompose the data it receives, tag each piece with the appropriate label, and put all pieces in their rightful boxes, sometimes with a quick fix:

  • Gravity dictates that you have to pick up the ball, and you can always bend your knees if you can’t bend your back,
  • Unless your dog is very small you have to throw the ball to some distance for the dog to exercise and have fun, and you can always throw by swinging your arm in a pendulum arc if you can’t do it the baseball way,
  • Of course the ball will get wet, but you can have a special pair of gloves for those occasions when you take your dog out to play fetch.

No problem. Even if it does not go as far as claiming that ‘you should not have a dog if you can’t play with it’, the analytical mind practices a form of ‘judgmentalism’ in the sense that it is quick to categorize the data. And once every piece of data has been put in its rightful box, well, there is nothing that looks like an anomaly, is there? The innovation opportunity has been missed.

The analytical mind can still take part in the innovation endeavor. Indeed, it will prove essential in other roles in the innovation team such as the experimenter or the implementer. Just don’t give it the job to spot the innovation opportunities.

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Yann Cramer is an innovation learner, practitioner, sharer, teacher. He’s lived in France, Belgium and the UK, he’s travelled six continents to create development opportunities with customers or suppliers, and run workshops on R&D and Marketing. He writes on and on twitter @innovToday.

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  1. I identify with this post a great deal. I’m analytical by nature, which was a trait enhanced by training.

    I’m great at implementing paths to meet a goal and creating variations within them so that new things are learned and tried, but not so much figuring out the goal.

    I’m great at acquiring and pulling together different viewpoints from different people/job functions to find new insights, get things done more effectively, and keep from missing what one department needs. But that also means I have a tendency to accept everything as normal.

    It’s refreshing to see what I’ve always had a niggling feeling of “lack” about be defined as simply another role. So I can get even better at what I’m good at and make sure I’m playing on teams that have a keen observer.

  2. This is a pretty interesting article and I have to admit, even with the slightly less provocative title, you got my attention. I come at this from a pretty unique angle I think, as our company has a thinking and behavioral Profile that looks at 7 attributes, one of which is Analytical Thinking.

    In your characterization of the innovation process, I think what you’ve stated is largely correct, in that an Analytical thinker may not instantly gravitate toward the role of Observer (or if they do, they’ll look to logically reframe the current picture without bringing it to a new level entirely). However, I would say that in an innovation team or endeavor, the Analytical can still play a role in the development process or the observation process – if – they know what is expected of them and are challenged with a task that builds on their strength.

    Rather than task the Analytical with experimentation, put observation into an Analytical framework. If you can build a culture where Analyticals feel free to observe, test their observations, provide logic for why something may not be working as well as it could, innovation can grow out of that mold. It may not be the “spark” ideas of a Conceptual, but it is innovative nonetheless.

    I think that this is a great blog post to feed the discussion of harnessing how different thinking styles and preferences can innovate on their own terms…and how, more importantly, innovation can be that much stronger when its not all ideas or all analysis but rather the mixture of diverse perspectives.

  3. Hi Beth and Mark,
    Thanks for your feedback and insightful comments. I fully support the idea that the analytical mind has its unique strengths to leverage in the innovation team. And of course, there is nothing that prevents the person with an analytical mind to develop a new string to their bow, especially if they are in an encouraging environment. Cheers.

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