Mark Miller | VP of Marketing, Emergenetics International

Mark Miller | VP of Marketing, Emergenetics International

Think about innovation…what are the first words that pop into your head? Creative, ideas, boundless, new, unique, novel. Chances are that the word constraint doesn’t spring immediately to mind. However, according to preeminent management, innovation, and learning thinker, Dr. John Seely Brown, of USC, constraints are actually critical to creating and boosting innovation.

“Contrary to popular myth, imagination and innovation are actually spurred by constraints. Too much freedom can be paralyzing, too many constraints can be stifling and we currently have a situation where our classrooms are suffocating and the outside resources (e.g. the Net) are unstructured and unguided (apart from the collectives that form to manage that issue),” says Brown on his website promoting his new book, A New Culture of Learning.

Seely Brown will be a keynote speaker at this year’s ASTD International Conference, where we’ll be exhibiting and attending. This session excites me perhaps more than any other, for the sheer reason of reinforcing two key ideas:

  1. Innovation will be what pushes our workforce and our organizations ahead (and it must start NOW).
  2. Innovation isn’t conventional.

Let me explain that second point, because I’m sure it seems obvious. Of course innovation isn’t conventional, you say…the very definition of innovation is to be outside of convention and to find new ways to get results.

But I’m talking about innovation in the same way that John Seely Brown is referencing innovation…which is that the conventional ways of viewing creativity and innovation aren’t true. In our work, you could look at an Emergenetics Profile and see a person with a huge preference for Conceptual (Yellow) Thinking. Your first assumption would be that because this person naturally thinks in a big-picture, visionary, connected manner, they would be naturally innovative. They would constantly come up with new ideas and sparks of creative energy would be bursting from their seams.

You may be right…but not across the board. And there is certainly the potential for this person to develop ideas but never implement them. After all, for something to be innovative, it must also actually effect a change. It must take action and create an impact.

In contrast, the conventional viewpoint on a Structural (Green) Thinker would be that he would NOT be innovative. His thinking in this case too methodical, too organized, and too constrained by process to truly come up with something new. Again, not true.

This is simply the manner that someone approaches being creative…but creativity and innovation are measured by the end result. Is there a new idea that makes a difference and changes the game in some way? If so, does it matter how you get there?

Seely Brown also states that skills are important but so are mind sets and dispositions. The onus then becomes not on simply teaching skills or even teaching the ability to learn, but shifting the mindset around how people can facilitate innovation and new ideas. Think back to our Conceptual Thinker…what kind of shift in mindset would truly create the greatest innovative potential for this person? Chances are, it isn’t an open-ended scenario where complete freedom is given for new ideas to develop (this person already naturally thinks in this manner). As Seely Brown puts it, it’s about creating constraints that provide this kind of person with the greatest capacity to fully actualize an idea.

The other way that I think holds promise for the way we work is to focus on the collaborative. Changing natural thinking patterns is hard. Our test/re-test reliability (and many other psychometric and personality assessments as well) indicate that people don’t change much over time. The old phrase “Old habits die hard” has stood the test of time for a reason—it is easier to use well-worn paths in our brains than to create new ones (though research is coming out every day that reinforces…thankfully…the plasticity of the brain and the fact that we CAN change).

So rather than try to adopt completely new ways of thinking for yourself, think about incremental shifts and differing tendencies—and think about who you can rely on who thinks DIFFERENTLY than you do. Collaborative innovation creates the constraint/open system that can truly propel innovation. Take a look at our two example Profiles—they will approach thinking very differently.

But what if our Yellow thinker could rely on our Green thinker for more structure and a process to implement a big-picture idea? Their results will be better and more complete. If our Green thinker could take an idea and let the Yellow thinker build from it…again, the results will be stronger and more robust.

I’m excited to hear John Seely Brown at ASTD this year, but even more excited to put new ideas about innovation into practice in the workplace.