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Fields & Applications

Innovation is Child’s Play

Innovation and analytical science can be uncomfortable bedfellows. Successful innovation depends on behaviors far more than process, in particular the kind of expansive, creative behaviors that are rarely ingrained in the culture of science-based organizations. If you have ever been in a meeting and suggested a leftfield idea, only to have several colleagues tell you immediately why it won’t work; you have experienced a clash of behaviors.


Trying to find an unusual solution to a problem is an expansive behavior, while subjecting an idea to criticism and skepticism is reductive. Successful innovation demands the use of both. Over-zealous use of reductive thinking can be particularly acute in the field of analytical science, where analysis, skepticism and data-driven objective evidence are highly valued. Of course, subjecting new ideas to reductive analysis and questioning is important to innovation, but you need to have those new ideas in the first place, and to give them room to grow and develop before they are judged.

Child’s play

Ideas are key in moving analytical science forward; original ways of thinking are crucial in finding solutions to ensure safe food and water, reliable medicines, and sustainable energy. So how can we evolve our ways of thinking to effectively meet these needs in a world where problems seem to win the race against progress?

The first part of the answer lies in recognizing the need for distinct phases of expansive and reductive thinking in any innovation initiative. The trick is to get everyone working on the problem to move in step, using expansive or reductive thinking as needed, but at the same time. Signaling can help make this shift explicit for your team. The signal, in its simplest form, could be how a request is phrased; asking your colleagues to help build an idea with you (expansive) or seeking help in judging one (reductive). Bear in mind that in a world where reductive thinking dominates, simply asking colleagues “what do you think?” invites judgment by default.

The good news is that we are all born with an incredible ability to think expansively. If you have ever given a small child a gift, only to see more fun being had with the box it came in than the present, you have witnessed an expansive thinker at work. Imagining alternative possibilities is at the very heart of expansive thinking – just like a child seeing a car, a house, or a spaceship in a cardboard box. The bad news is that while we are born with this ability, it is gradually trained out of us; first of all, by an education system that teaches us there is only one right answer to a problem, and secondly in our working lives, where this process often continues.

In 1968, George Land gave 1,600 five-year-olds a creativity test used by NASA to select innovative engineers and scientists. He then re-tested the same children at ages 10 and 15. The test showed that 98% of five-year-olds registered genius-level creativity, but this declined sharply to 30% at 10 years and 12% at 15. The same test given to 280,000 adults placed only two percent with genius-level creativity. Yet while our ability to think expansively and creatively may have atrophied over time, it can be recovered. We all have it within us to re-learn how to be a ‘genius child’ once again – and to take this fresh thinking into the field.

When and where?

I have spoken on the subject of creativity to organizations all over the world and collectively asked thousands of people when and where they have their best ideas. The most common answers include “out walking”, “in the shower”, “in bed early in the morning”. Nobody has ever answered “in a busy meeting at work”, which is because, in meetings, we are usually in a Beta mindset. Often called ‘busy Beta’, this mindset is characterized by a high state of alertness and equips us for logical thinking and decision-making. When walking or showering, we can access our Alpha mindset, in which relaxed visionary thinking becomes possible. Deep meditation can take us further still, to Theta, which is an almost dream-like state.

Expansive thinking is helped by being in Alpha or Theta state so no small wonder that it is impaired by a busy and pressured environment. Create conditions where you and your co-thinkers can relax and become playful. People need to feel that they are working in a safe bubble where a new idea will be positively supported and explored.

Though ideal settings for creating and handling large volumes of data, laboratories are far better for dissecting established theorems than for creating new solutions. Find an inspiring space to work away from the grey windowless boardrooms or labs where most brainstorms are attempted. Surrounding people with color, sensory stimulus and other aids helps to achieve that Alpha state, which can be the ideal catalyst for a truly innovative reaction.

Above all, avoid the temptation to think that a serious problem demands seriousness of both mind and environment. Anxious, frowning people rarely have brilliant new ideas.

Growing seeds

A new idea is like a seed. Like a seed it’s hard to see whether it will develop into a weed or a flower or a tree without time to grow. Along with creating the right expansive environment comes another behavior we call “greenhousing”. Just as a greenhouse protects young plants, greenhousing is a way of protecting new ideas as they grow.

Principally this is done through attitude and language. First of all everyone working on the problem must adopt the attitude that every new idea has potential and that their role is to look for ways to add depth and positively build on it.

Reject language such as “Yes, but...”, “That will never work”, “The regulations won’t allow that”. Instead, insist on language like “Yes, and…”, “That could be even better if…”.

Many of the greatest discoveries were unplanned. Creating a fresh paradigm for analytical science necessitates the nurturing of a culture of innovative thinking. In the first instance, look at an idea’s potential significance, rather than its limitations. Once an idea has been developed for long enough to explore its potential, then the team can consciously switch into reductive mode and evaluate it.

Seven Seeds of Innovation

Set aside critical thinking and cynicism ahead of brainstorming sessions.

Unleash the genius streak of creativity you were born with but lost through years of pragmatism.

Understand that imaginative thinking is best supported by a relaxing environment. People have their best ideas whilst in the shower or on walks rather than in tense
boardroom meetings.

Avoid the temptation to think that a serious problem demands seriousness of mind and environment. Anxious, frowning people rarely have brilliant new ideas.

Give new ideas room to grow. “Greenhousing” protects an idea up to the point that it is sufficiently developed for useful critical evaluation.

Choose the right mindset over skills, when it comes to selecting members of your team.

Recognize that the solution may already exist outside the world of your problem.

Mindset over skillset

If you have a choice with whom you collaborate, go one step further and actively recruit on the basis of mindset and attitude rather than simply skills.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with Scott Forstall of Apple, who led the team that developed the iPhone, arguably one of the most influential innovations of the past ten years. I asked him the secret of creating such a series of technical breakthroughs and his reply was that success was totally dependent on recruiting a team with the right mindset.

Forstall is a follower of psychologist Carol Dweck, whose work on the links between success and attitude are influencing a generation of innovators. In particular, Dweck describes how a growth  mindset differs from a fixed  mindset. Put simply, a growth  mindset is characterized by a love of learning, a reduced fear of failure and a willingness to try out new things. A fixed  mindset on the other hand describes a pre-disposition to exercise a skill you already have: to get success by repeating something you know you are good at. Repeating the same experiments with only minor alterations is an essential theme in creating effective science, but sometimes it’s necessary to take inspiration from technological innovators and start from scratch.

Scott Forstall knew that the journey to create the iPhone would be characterized by the need to solve multiple new technical problems, many of which could not be anticipated at the outset. So for him, a team with a strong growth mindset, who were willing to learn new skills and grow together, was essential.

The bigger the problem you seek to solve, the more the mindset of the team will determine whether you succeed or fail.

Another world

One of the paradoxes of innovation is that the more experience you gain in a certain area or task, the harder it becomes to think of a new way of doing it. Organizations often fall into the trap of convening experts as a way to find new ideas, without realizing that deep expertise can be a hindrance to innovation.

The answer lies in developing stimuli to see the problem through fresh eyes whilst making effective use of experience. One useful technique, called “related worlds”, is based on the premise that whatever your problem, it’s likely that something similar will have been solved somewhere else, probably in another field altogether. For example, the underarm roll-on deodorant was developed by asking, “who else has solved the problem of applying liquid uniformly to a surface?” Inspiration was taken from the ballpoint pen.

Above all, the path to successful innovation lies in adopting or re-discovering expansive thinking skills and applying them in a spirit of constant experimentation.

Increasing the level of innovation in analytical science is all about looking beyond the tried-and-tested, and pre-empting the science of tomorrow with inspirational solutions.

Jon Platt is the leader of the healthcare practice at strategic innovation consultancy ?What If! (

Further reading:
Sticky Wisdom, by Dave Allan and Matt Kingdon
The Science of Serendipity, by Matt Kingdon
Mindset, by Carol S Dweck

Don’t miss next month’s issue, where we showcase the Top Ten Innovations of 2013.

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About the Author
Jon Platt

Jon Platt is a director and healthcare sector lead at ?What If!, the strategic innovation consultancy. He has worked with many of the world's leading global healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, Roche and Novartis.

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