2020plus.net with Mal Fletcher

Future Leaders: Innovation Architects : Creating Divergent Thinking in Your Enterprise

By Mal Fletcher
Published: Wednesday 1 May 2013

In the award-winning movie The King's Speech, Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue helps the future King of England to overcome a debilitating stammer.

Watching the story unfold, we become aware that the Duke of York - later George VI - is relying on the expertise of a man who has no professional qualifications. He has no letters after his name, yet Logue carries something more important than qualifications. He possesses a particular talent for innovation.

Innovation is the passcode to influence in the emerging IT-bio-nano age, where global is the new local and urbanisation and digitisation combine to bring unprecedented opportunities for collaboration.

I recently addressed an international conference for entrepreneurs, held in Portugal. I was asked by a reporter for the TV news what quality I thought would most distinguish leaders in industry and society over the next decade.

It was an easy question to answer: they be leaders who see themselves as innovation architects, I said. They will create cultures within their organisations that attract and resource inventive thinkers.

Innovation architects will take centre stage for several reasons. Firstly, competition for prominence in the innovation race is heating up, as the technology gap between developed and developing regions narrows fast.

Developing nations often skip several stages in the evolution of a new technology. Because they have less invested in maintaining the status quo, they are quicker to move toward previously unchartered applications of existing ideas.

Second, in the next 10 years market influence won't just go to companies and organisations that can develop as yet unforeseen technologies. It will go to those that can exploit the full but unrealised potential of the torrent of ideas already emerging around us.

Third, in the age of mass collaboration innovation leaders will gather together around innovation hubs (this was the subject of my last editorial). They will do so because a growing reliance on high tech gives rise to a corresponding need for high touch, for physical engagement with other people.

Innovation leaders will want the opportunity to connect in a physical space because ideas remain vague until they are connected with other ideas. Proximity makes it easier for companies to form clusters, through which ideas can spread virally and develop quickly.

Finding venture capital or crowdsource funding is also often easier within a collective, too.

Developing Innovation Architecture


Innovation architects will rule the emerging leadership landscape. So, what does it take to build and maintain an innovation culture with a business, organisation or other enterprise?

It begins with divergent thinking. In a tricky economic climate, there is considerable pressure on leaders to reach convergence fast. The thinking goes like this: 'Let's get done as quickly as possible with brainstorming new approaches. Let's move quickly through the options identification phase and sign the deal. Then we can move on.'

There are times when get-results-fast convergent thinking is vital - too much open-plan thinking can rob a company of its will to grow and succeed. But a culture built only on this approach shuts down some of our greatest opportunities.

A few years ago, an EU-wide study asked the question ‘What makes some people lucky?’ It set out to find answers using scientific methods. The study's authors started by bringing together two groups of people - those who thought themselves very lucky in life and those who said, 'Nothing lucky ever happens to me.' They then conducted a series of controlled experiments to gauge the reactions of each group.

In one simple experiment, a €50 note was placed on the floor at the entrance to a major shopping mall. Members of the test groups were asked to enter the mall one at a time, without knowing about the money. In the end, the vast majority of the 'lucky' group saw the cash and picked it up. About the same percentage of the self-confessed 'unlucky' group didn't even notice the cash, much less take it away.

In the same way, too much convergent thinking leaves us with a mind that is closed to new, unexpected possibilities. In its quest to get results fast, it relies too much on things like common practice and benchmarking.

Many companies now recognise their lack of divergent thinking and try to make up for it with what they term 'right brain meetings'. In popular parlance, the right hemisphere of the brain is usually associated with creative thought, while the left is linked with logic.

Yet the metaphors of left and right brain are just that - they're analogies or approximations to help us better understand the complex machine which is the human brain. In reality, as neurologists will tell you, we really know very little about how the brain works.

Ideas will not arrive just because you add an 'ideas meeting' to your team's schedule. Ideas often emerge when they're least expected. And ideas don't occur in isolation; they don’t hang out in singles bars. New ideas are born out of associations between existing ideas. Divergent thinking leaves more time for fresh associations to form.


The Adjacent Possible


In ideas theory we have an important concept known as the 'adjacent possible'. It says that novel ideas emerge as we explore all the full possibilities of what is currently doable.

Within any field of endeavour there is a plane of ideas surrounding the innovative thinker. Imagine there's a table in front of you; it's covered with small, colourful post-it notes. On each note there is a sentence describing an idea that's already either been developed or is currently in development within your sector of industry or society.

As you take time to read and engage with these notes, shifting them playfully around the table, you will eventually find that new ideas begin to take root in your mind. Your brain will, if you let it, do what it does so well, building connections and patterns.

Many of our best ideas exist as vague hunches, which we hold for months or even years. Usually, it some connection with an existing idea that turns a hunch into a more concrete and practical idea.

This is why, throughout the history of invention, we see constant examples of multiple innovations. Studies have shown that, over the past 200 years, most significant inventions have had an independent multiple, a parallel invention born at around the same time, as two or more inventors have called upon the same adjacent possible to meet a similar or related need.

When Guglielmo Marconi was working on the world's first wireless in London, his contemporary, A. E. Dolbear was doing much the same work in the USA. As it turned out, Marconi produced the first radio waves from the site of the modern BT Tower.

Both he and Dolbear were influenced by the earlier work of pioneers like Nikola Tesla and Heinrich Hertz. They both called upon an existing table of ideas.

Historically, the same thing happened with the development of calculus and the introduction of the telegraph machine, the light bulb and the steam boat. More recently, multiple scientists worked independently to uncover the structure of human DNA. Even Einstein's theory of relativity had its multiples, as others worked independently to solve the same puzzles in physics.


Enlarging Your Plane of Ideas


Encouraging divergent thinking in your enterprise means enlarging the adjacent possible, the body of ideas that are available as a resource point for your team.

This starts with you as the leader, enlarging your own sphere of reference. When did you last read a book that really challenged your thinking or worldview? If you only ever hear from those who share exactly the same opinions as you, your thinking is never tested and your creativity is stunted.

When did you last read a magazine from outside your normal sphere of interest? Bored leaders produce boring ideas. When did you last have a coffee with someone who thinks quite differently to you and isn't afraid to say so?

In your world, who is allowed to rock the boat? The people who rock the boat should sometimes be the last one we throw overboard. Who among your closest colleagues has permission to say 'no' to you? Do you recognise that there is often a difference between dissent and disloyalty - and that diversity often promotes creativity?

Divergent culture also requires that you expose your team to a wider worldview, a broader range of options for solving problems. Here are a few ways of achieving this - but there are many more, if you're willing to think creatively:

Team training days: Invite trainers whose methodology may be different to your own, but who share something of same fundamental DNA in terms of values.

Think Tank days: Invite speakers who can stretch the team with an understanding of skills to which they’re not normally exposed.

Away days: Teams benefit from time spent visiting other enterprises/other parts of same, large enterprise to see how they solve problems.

Training opportunities: If you see a great training opportunity coming up, don’t go alone, take key team members with you. In tough times, skills are people’s greatest resource. When you invest in those skills, you'll likely produce long-term loyalty!

Reading, Audio and Video material: Invest in your team by purchasing great resource material that will stretch their thinking.

Creating innovation architecture will be fundamental to our ability to solve problems and pursue new opportunities in the emerging marketplace.

Fascinating Times is Mal Fletcher's latest book, out now. Rapid change requires clear thinking. A book every civic-minded leader must read!