Fostering Innovation

My employer has a relatively new program designed to foster innovation throughout all levels of the organization.  The program is fairly straightforward — anyone can attend a half-day session wherein various creative exercises and principles are shared by senior leaders, to help staff learn to think “outside the box.”

Then, any staff member who has the passion to pursue a project is free to attend the second session, which consists of small-group conversations about the ideas developed by participants, followed by a more in-depth review of how the executive team will evaluate and — as appropriate — fund various projects.  The third and final session is a workgroup intended to hammer out a presentation for delivery to the senior executives, including a full project plan and financial pro forma.

The natural cynic within me isn’t enthusiastic about the success of large enterprises “training” staff on dynamic and creative thinking.  Yet, as a participant in the program, I cannot help but be intrigued by the way the system works, and I believe the executives are serious about making the innovation initiative a success.  This leads me to reflect on the nature of innovation per se.

Humans are, by our very biology, pattern-recognition machines.  Our brains are optimized to process sensory input and to categorize it according to previously encountered paradigms.  So, it’s not quite so easy to just decide one day to “think outside the box” — for doing so requires us to think in ways that are contrary to how are brains are designed.

Yet there are some strategies that help, especially when applied methodically to a specific problem.  That’s one reason I do my most productive writing from the coffee shop — without the distractions of home to lead me astray, I can focus on my work, and even occasionally get new ideas simply by observing the people around me.

I am often dismayed by how many otherwise intelligent people are willing to settle for the mundane.  They are content to work a 9-5 job, raise 2.3 kids, live in the suburbs, and drive a used minivan.  Perhaps breaking out of this worldview is more difficult for people than I would have guessed.  The comfort of a familiar life-pattern, especially one that is strongly engrained into our social consciousness, isn’t something people ordinarily wish to buck, so why bother pursuing an interently more risky lifestyle? 

It’s a form of game theory.  There is a basic prudence in choosing a high probability of adequate comfort over a low probabily of high comfort but higher risk of high discomfort.  For many reasons, I’m more inclined to the second path, but even though I continue to reject it, I am more sympathetic to the logic of joining the “herd of individuals.”

Thinking “outside the box” is neither easy nor universally fruitful.  Maybe that’s one reason that truly innovative thinking — in the working world or at home — is so rare.  Perhaps its the reason we fear making tough choices that infringe on our psychological comfort.

In either case, I think I’ll push my project into session three and see what happens.  At worst, I’ve had some face time with the bosses.  At best, I might do something truly remarkable. 

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