How Science Can Unlock the Eureka Experience

by Pete Foley

Science Behind Eureka Experience

The Pete Foley Interviews

Editor’s note:  Pete Foley is one of our regular contributors, and one of the most eclectic, synthetic thinkers we know in addition to being a world-class photographer and part time rock & roll band member. This is the first in a series of five interviews.

IX: How would you characterize your work?

Pete Foley: I believe that innovation and design are ultimately about people. Psychology, and the perceptual and behavioral sciences represent the best understanding we have today about how people think. So to take our innovation to the highest level, we need to borrow extensively from them whenever we can.  I facilitate this by building bridges to these domains, and then channel and apply the knowledge that flows from them to support innovation, design and related fields. I passionately believe that doing this in practical, applied ways is how we evolve from innovation that is full of sparks of brilliance, to become serial innovators, who use evidenced based processes to turn those sparks into sustainable fire.

Of course, the application of insights from the world of psychology to design, innovation and marketing is not new. For example, in 1988, Don Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things” applied Gibsonian affordances from psychology brilliantly, and practically to design. More recently we’ve also seen behavioral economics gaining a lot of traction in marketing, while forward thinking research companies have been embracing biometrics in order to measure what people feel and do in the moment, rather than what they tell us they think they will do.  There has also been an explosion of interest in neuromarketing, which shows our interest in understanding how people think.  However, I think so far we are just scratching the surface, and there remains enormous untapped potential, if we can absorb, integrate and apply the huge volume of knowledge from all of these different fields.

That integration of knowledge is important, as by blending ideas from different disciplines, we can sometimes come up with synergies that can help us through inevitably complex real world problems. This may be something that we as innovators can uniquely do in some cases, as because we don’t dig as deep, we can look at all of the parts, and explore synergies in real world contexts.  However, I also believe it is important to remain anchored to the experts as we explore application of the insights from their fields. There is so much information out there, and partnering with people who understand it deeply helps us to focus on the most recent quality insights.  It also keeps us honest, and helps avoid the very human temptation to cherry pick insights that suit our immediate goals.

IX: What areas have you studied?

Pete Foley: I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to study a range of disciplines, often with the advice and insight of brilliant people. There are too many to mention them all, but in particular, I am deeply grateful for help I’ve had from Dan Ariely in behavioral economics, David Buss and Don Hoffman in evolutionary psychology, Art Markmen in cognitive psychology, Don Hoffman, Jeremy Wolf, Larry Rosenblum and Michael Leon in perceptual science, Moshe Bar and Bob Knight in neuroscience, and George Lakoff in cognitive linguistics.

…and what most surprised you? I’m surprised nearly everyday by something, that is part of the joy of learning, but two things in particular stand out. The first is how much work the brain does in the background, at a level that we are often completely unaware of.  The second is how consistent this ‘below awareness thinking’ is across the many different tasks our brain controls.  For example, many of our everyday decisions occur without us really thinking about them, with our actions influenced by cognitive biases, habits and decision heuristics. But it doesn’t stop there; our brain works very hard behind the scenes all across the board, guiding where we look, and where we don’t, who and what we find attractive, how we read facial expressions and body language, and even much of the meaning we extract out of language. I think understanding how this works is a huge opportunity.  For example, a key insight is that we humans are often really bad at predicting the behavior of our future selves. Understanding this, and some of how and why we get it wrong, can transform innovation away from targeting what we believe people want, and what they believe they want.  Instead, we can create processes that reflect what they will actually do, and what they really see, incorporating the influence of some of those ‘behind the scenes’ mental processes.

IX: Why are psychology and its related fields important to designers and innovators?

Pete Foley: I’ve already mentioned  how important I believe it is to understand how people think if we are to innovate effectively for them. I think there are also two other specific areas where this science can be particularly useful.

Firstly in understanding and helping ourselves as innovators: If we can understand more about how we come up with ideas, then we can create evidenced based innovation processes that help both us, and others to do so more consistently.  For example, there is a lot of knowledge about how the brain comes up with insights, but a good place to start is to provide a framework that supports the three A’s (analogy, abstraction, alignability) that often lie behind those magical Eureka moments. There is also a supporting cast of things like flow, grit, decision fatigue, and context that help turn insight into real world innovation. As we’d expect from a field populated with creative people, innovation is an evolving process. We’ve largely evolved away from expert centered innovation, where we thought we knew best, to more externally focused processes, where we invite people in to co-invent and edit with us. By incorporating more insights from psychology into processes like design thinking, I think we can make another leap, to collaborate and co-invent in contexts where people have much better chance of showing us what they will love, rather than attempting to predict their own future behavior, which we know is often flawed.

The second reason is that innovation alone is simply not enough. The most amazing idea is of little use if we cannot turn it into something that people love and adopt. This means that they have to notice it, easily understand it, want to touch it or interact with it, and like it, all before they will buy it. By infusing the science of perception, memory, and psychology into a human centered, and integrated innovation process, we can build these qualities into our innovations earlier. Marketing and package design work so much better if they are not last minute “bolt-on’s” to our creations. Understanding more about ourselves can also help us to take innovation from the front to the back end. Existing tools such as OCEAN personality tests, or compound remote association tests can help us to understand our own strengths and weakness, and those of others. That in turn can help us to grow skills like grit, emotional intelligence, and problem solving in ourselves, or to building balanced, diverse teams that possess them overall.

By the way, all of this is knowledge that enhances, rather than replaces human creativity. We can create conditions that help us to more systematically come up with insight, and that evolve us away from random brainstorming. But we are still a very long way from replacing the amazing ability of the human brain with an automatic process. I often use Picasso, a master of innovation, as an analogy for this. His skill at realistic painting and drawing as a young teenager was breathtaking. As a serial innovator, he later broke the rules, often brilliantly.  But he did so all the more effectively because he deeply understood and creatively controlled what rules or ‘givens’ to shatter, and what not to.  If we can learn about the innovative mind at a level that is even a fraction of what that 15 year old boy knew about painting, we can use that insight to innovate more consistently, break rules insightfully, and perhaps get a little closer to the serial innovation that Picasso embodied.

IX: How do we make this real, and turn these insights into practical, useful tools for business, product, service, and culture?

Pete Foley: To make this knowledge practically useful, we must find specific insights that translate into processes or tools that directly help with specific innovation challenges. I ultimately favor crossing boundaries, and integrating insights from different psychology related disciplines to create holistic innovation processes. However, as a start point, I like to break this down into bite-sized chunks, For example, some specific opportunities for intervention include :

1. Using psychology to help us to more systematically create “Eureka!” insights, and to create teams that can translate insights into sellable innovation.

2.  How behavioral economics can help us understand what people will actually choose, and target innovations to solve more salient real world problems.

3.  Applying perceptual science to help people notice, and bond with our innovations, leading to brand creation, trial and repurchase,

4.  Leveraging memory science to make innovations more intuitive, make people aware of our products at the right time, and enhance both trial and repurchase.

Once we get this specific, we can start to map insights to innovation needs, and then find or create practical examples which make the insights real, and allow people to integrate them into their worlds.

IX:  Before we go there, any advice to people who want to learn more about this in general?

Pete Foley: Find and partner with someone who knows a lot about the science of human behavior, and is good at explaining it. You can read up on psychology, for example, but unless you want to make it your full time job for the next 10 years or more, there is simply too much information out there. It helps enormously to have collaborators who can curate the data, and help make sure what you are reading is the ‘good stuff’, that really applies to your needs.  For innovation specifically, I also seek out expert generalists. That is people who know a lot about a lot of stuff, or who have had varied, diverse careers. I’ll talk more about analogy as an innovation tool later, but people who watch a lot of the Science and Discovery channel, or read a lot of books, have a lot of information stored in memory. This knowledge can often be surprisingly useful when innovating in unrelated fields.  Because they have a lot of varied knowledge, expert generalists, or T-shaped innovators, are also often particularly good at making analogies, and seeing connections that lead to Eureka moments. In other words, they are great people to have on the team, or for us to aspire to become.

In the next part of this 5 part interview, we will explore the four specific intervention opportunities described above in more detail.

image credit: Pete Foley
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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him  @foley_pete

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