Mindset – Innovation's Third Way

by Dennis Stauffer

Mindset - Innovation's Third WayWhat’s your theory of personal innovation?

Do you believe that some of us are simply born to be creative and innovative and some not—that it’s a personality trait or perhaps some largely innate talent? Or, do you believe that we’re all innovative, just in different ways—that everyone is an innovator; we just approach it differently?

The first theory suggests that if you want innovators on your team or in your organization, you need to go find them, kind of like recruiting star athletes or brilliant academics. It’s a prevalent view but one that’s not supported by the research. We know there are all sorts of strategies and facilitation techniques like Creative Problem Solving that can take any group of people and make them dramatically more creative and innovative—so the ability to innovate can’t be just innate. Research with twins suggests that genetics plays only a relatively minor role in someone’s creativity and family influence is negligible.

The second theory is in keeping with the work of Educational Psychologist Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences. It’s consistent with the assumptions behind the popular StrengthsFinder and the Kirton Adpator Innovator (KAI) assessment that has long been used to map where folks may fall along a presumed continuum of innovation preferences. This approach is less threatening and more politically correct but it just doesn’t square with our experience. Cleary some people are more adaptable, more willing to change, more open to new ideas, and yes more creative than others.

There’s a radical difference between Michael Jordan’s level of play on a basketball court, and mine (really radical). It would be laughable for me to argue that we just have different styles in how we approach the game. That same variability occurs in people’s tendency to innovate. (Think Steve Jobs.) It’s not just a question of style. We’ve all observed people who really have locked in and resist change. We also see that what emerges from a well-facilitated ideation session is measurably more creative, not just different.

So, if our tendency to innovate is neither a personal gift nor a universal trait, what’s left? Thankfully, this is a false dilemma. There’s a third option: mindset. It’s consistent with other less-famous work in educational psychology, although it’s drawing increasing attention: the work of Stanford Educational Psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck has found that the way students believe their own heads work has a profound affect on their academic performance…often overwhelming factors like IQ and academic ability.

In our work, we’ve taken a similar approach to the capacity to innovate. Our working assumptions (which are supported by the research) are that 1) everyone has the fundamental ability to be innovative, and 2) not everyone has exploited these capabilities to the same degree. So on one hand we recognize everyone’s ability to contribute to innovation and at the same time we account for the fact that some of us are innovation Michael Jordans, and (sorry, but) some of us are not.

What most distinguishes the innovation high performers from the less innovative is not some indiscernible secret sauce of mental faculties. What distinguishes them is their mindset. That is to say: their attitudes, assumptions and beliefs—their mental models—about how the world works. These mental models are often subconscious. Yet they can have a huge impact on someone’s behavior and therefore how well they perform—and innovate.

Those first two theories of personal innovation both have the same limitation. They leave us with no where to go. If your ability to innovate is some innate personality trait, there’s nothing you can do to change it. If you have the same ability to innovate as everyone else and you’re just different in how you approach it, you have little incentive to change.

The beauty of a mindset approach is that it gives us some powerful developmental options. Creative Problem Solving and similar facilitation techniques are rarely described this way, but they’re so effective because they shift the mindset of those who are participating. They invite people to adopt a set of working assumptions and attitudes that have been demonstrated to enhance creativity.

Our mindset is a product of our choices. Our personal collection of beliefs is something that every one of us has the power to change, and in ways that can enhance our capacity to innovate. By identifying where we are and the key adjustments we need to make, every one of us has the potential to become the next Steve Jobs…when we’re willing to change our mental models.

Imagine what you might accomplish with your team, your organization, or for that matter with yourself, by understanding how to shift your mindset and choose to be more innovative.


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Dennis StaufferDennis Stauffer is the award winning author of Thinking Clockwise, A Field Guide for the Innovative Leader and the Innovator Mindset blog. He’s the founder of Insight Fusion, working with individuals, teams and organizations to boost their capacity to innovate.

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  1. Hi Dennis, thanks for these thoughts. They are interesting and I agreee to some extent about the mindset concept but I think your case might be a little light on in regards to true innovation/creativity.
    I am an educator very much interested in creativity/innovation and the thinking process behind it. I agree that the ability to be creative is in all and while mindset is one of the things there are also other factors involved. Factors such as environment.
    Generally for a deep creative thought to emerge cognitive dissonance needs to occur. This is a state where our brains move out of equilibrium and into a state of confusion. This state can last a long time as our brain is trying to scaffold itself to a to a new state of understanding and therefor back into equilibrium. this can take a long time and requires a lot of information to enter into the brain and be sorted. Does your workplace provide the environment for this to happen – does environmental set up encourage the mistakes and risk taking, that will happen along the way. Or is it a workplace demanding a false sense of innovation in order to make money – therefore the time restrictions are tighter.
    In a study by Eysenck (1995) and Martindale (1999) they proposed that creativity is characterised by cognitive disinhibition. Cognitive disinhibition is hypothesised to underlie many of the cognitive processes that have been associated with creative cognition, such as defocused attention and wide associative horizon. Whereas Eysenck (1995) argued that lower cognitive inhibition is a relatively permanent characteristic of the thinking style of creative people, Martindale (1 999) has argued that creative people can focus or defocus attention depending on task demands. Is your workplace at all interested in the idea of Defocused attention and encourage that thinking perspective?
    There are also different levels of creative thought. Tol quote Arthur Rimbaud a French Poet

    “I say a man must be a seer

    Make oneself a seer

    The poet makes himself a seer by a lengthy, massive and deliberate disordering of all the senses”
    1871

    To reach the level of creativity required in this demand takes more than just mindset. It requires an entire structure that is prepared to risk everything. Thanks for your thoughts.
    Kynan

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