Many people hold children’s learning processes up as a model for adult innovation. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, for instance, attributes his great performance to the consistent exploration of new ideas through a mindset of “childlike wonder.” People often perceive that children begin life with curiosity, wonder and the ability to “imagine” beyond the realm of possibilities. However, as you get older that curiosity disappears and life experiences dictate how things should be which can slow down your ability to be radically innovative. Wouldn’t it be great to still have the same kind of imaginative mindset that you did when you were young? This is an unfortunate misunderstanding about children’s learning and adult innovation, which tends to impede the very thing it aims to promote, greater adult innovation. As some of you may know, I spent the first decade of my professional life as an elementary school teacher, have a Masters in Education and, in my doctoral work at Stanford, delved deeply into child development, before switching to a study of management decision-making. When you dig into what children are actually doing as they learn, it becomes clear that they are not being “imaginative” in the adult sense of the word. Instead, probably the closest parallel to what they are doing is a form of rapid prototyping. Because everything and every situation is new to them, they are constantly experimenting with what works for them and what does not. They aren’t ignoring or overcoming barriers, which is the adult version of imagination; they are trying to discover the barriers. Children are actually striving to gain control over their environment by becoming more adult-like. Promoting innovation in adults is a very different process. The issue for adults is to overcome well-engrained limitations and barriers. One of the findings from my doctoral dissertation was that adult learners evaluate a range of possibilities and discard those that don’t fit their immediate criteria. Once discarded, opportunities are rarely revived. When people have discarded enough possibilities over time, their thinking becomes rigid and sterile. People look to the metaphor of “imagine like a child” as a means of escaping this narrowing of perspective, which is not an equivalent situation. We have done many programs where the goal was to broadly increase innovation in an organization. As one of our clients put it, “I have 50 engineers. Five of them can regularly produce ideas for $50M products. The rest can barely produce one idea for a $5M product. What makes those few high revenue generators different?” In this organization, and many others, we used our Wisdom Discovery process to determine how the most prolific innovators conceived of their innovation. A consistent pattern emerged. Top innovators do the following:
- They are strongly purpose driven to the extent that anything that might help them achieve their purpose was a good idea. Their initial transcending of barriers is because the barriers are irrelevant to achieving the purpose. Surprisingly, this isn’t even a conscious action; they never even consider the barriers.
- They constantly search out and engage with many information sources, particularly less obvious sources (sometimes called “checking the edge”) that might be in any way relevant to the purpose. They speak with clients a lot, colleagues in their organization, colleagues in the general market. They read a lot and review a wide variety of websites particularly about ones with similar processes but in different industries and countries. In short, they are voracious consumers of essentially unprocessed and marginally related information
- They experience what we came to call a “synergistic jump” in which all of these different inputs suddenly integrate into a holistic picture of a new way to achieve the purpose. Most of the time, this jump occurs during a physical activity (which is consistent with the theory of “mindfulness”). During the activity there is an “aha moment” when the innovation is formed.