Innovating Fast and Slow

by Scott Bowden

Innovating Fast and SlowIn recent years our understanding of the workings of the brain has increased dramatically. Science has provided meaningful insights into the mechanics of how we think, with business implications for everything from marketing to organizational behavior. Innovators, too, can benefit from these findings. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman leverages the concept of modes of thinking from the Psychology literature to define our thought processes as System 1 and System 2 (the original terms were set forth by prominent psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West).

Kahneman defines System 1 as a mode of thinking with automatic and rapid operation that generates a mental response with barely any discernible effort on the part of the participant. For example, when a person sees “2+2=?” the brain immediately fires back the answer “4” via the System 1 mechanism. System 2, Kahneman continues, is a more deliberative set of mental actions required for complex calculations, involving “agency, choice, and concentration.” System 2, for instance, would entail the mental activities associated with a request to count in this article all the occurrences of the letter “a.” The interplay of these two systems determines how we make our way through the world. As Kahneman observes, System 1

effortlessly originat[es] impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.

The purpose of Kahneman’s work is to help readers identify and understand the limitations of intuition and to provide a language to describe the processes at work that drive heuristics. As practitioners of innovation, we, too, can benefit from applying this greater precision to our thought processes as we engage in our daily work.

For the innovator, System 1 seems to be inherently tied into the ideation or discovery phase of the innovation process. Whiteboard brainstorming, virtual idea jam sessions, or other free-association methods used to generate new ideas can benefit from the ability of System 1 to “effortlessly” generate perspectives shorn of the baggage that can accompany the responses generated by System 2. System 1 drives out the crisp, new thinking that is not held back by all the limitations of the corporate bureaucracy, marketplace, or technological limitations that System 2 will force into the analysis. However, the more structured and analytical thinking driven by System 2 is required to deliver the idea. Innovation experts agree that the work following the ideation phase is almost always the most difficult part of the process, with numerous obstacles ranging from securing resources, validating potential return on investment, overcoming technological challenges, and steering between the Scylla and Charybdis of bureaucratic obstacles and doubting colleagues.

The examples of the difficulties inherent in this latter part of the process about in the innovation literature, ranging from Edison’s hundreds of attempts to arrive at the right combination of materials in the incandescent light bulb to the relentlessness of Dick Drew at 3M in pursuing the innovation that led to masking tape, despite his boss’s insistence that he focus on improving their current product (sandpaper) rather than working on something new.

The most successful innovation benefits from thinking derived from a combination of Systems 1 and 2, with System 1 driving the ideation phase and System 2 turning that idea into reality. We could also describe System 1 as an epiphany (when the new idea first hits us in all its glaring simplicity) followed by the intensive work of turning that idea into reality, whether that means convincing enough people of the need to radically transform a business process or working to develop a technology in a laboratory. Another possible conclusion from applying Kahneman’s insights is the realization that we all possess Systems 1 and 2 and thus we do not have to move ourselves to the back of the conference room in an ideation session just because we tend more to the deliberative approach to problem-solving. Leveraging these concepts can also help amplify the creative part of the ideation phase by better understand how our minds work when we are in the process of trying to create new solutions to problems.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2011)
A Century of Innovation: the 3M Story (

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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