In an earlier Vantage Point blog post, we shared collective insights from many of our client organizations about the current challenges facing their business. These insights were summed up by the phrase, ‘our business model is under attack’.   Inherent in this phrase is the notion that organizations are in constant change, requiring them to regularly assess and adjust to the demands of an increasingly dynamic and alternating marketplace.  What used to be breakthrough thinking is now the cost of admission: To remain competitive, organizations must excel at driving innovation.

The challenge, then, is how can organizations accelerate innovation? The following concepts were inspired by Steven Johnson’s book and discussed in an interview with our own Dr. Michael Tobin.

Basically, innovation is not magical: innovators are not born, but developed. Innovation can be, must be learned.

The myth

In Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation, Steven Johnson provokes the modern myth that a genius hits upon a brilliant idea in a sudden flash of insight. Historically, innovators are understood to be those who sit alone and think until their brain hurts and they finally have a “Eureka!” moment. But does hard thinking really lead to innovation?

When talking about how we came up with our fabulous ideas, the “ah-ha!” moments seem so simple, especially for the purposes of telling killer stories. The stories become more about the talent of the innovator than the process of coming up with the idea.

Coming up with good ideas is far from simple. It requires complexity in understanding and novelty in associations. It is necessary but insufficient to ponder. The process we propose here is twofold: first deliberate focus, then deliberate un-focus.


Focus is all about learning existing information. Think about a camera zooming in on whatever may be standing out to you. In order to really understand something, we need to invest time and thought into what Johnson refers to as a “slow hunch”. This requires focus on redundant and nuanced patterns.

However, for the purposes of innovation, focused thinking has its limits: new information is at the mercy of things we already understand, making it hard to think outside the box.

Whenever I think of my cousin Bill, for example, I can’t help but have easy access to a select few vivid memories where Bill ruined the party. When I hear he passed the Bar and is now a practicing lawyer, it is extremely difficult for me to bypass memories that are well-learned. I continue to see Bill through my past understanding, at best adding slightly novel traits like “sneaky” for passing the Bar.

However, focus is still fundamental to the innovation equation. It allows us to push the limits of what Johnson would call the “adjacent possible”, or the idea just beyond the sum of its disparate parts. We can’t move forward before understanding what exists.


This is the imaginative stage requiring “right brain” creativity. Thinking about things from other perspectives enables what Dr. Tobin refers to as “other consciousness” or a type of thinking free from personal constraints or biases.

To return to my prior example, consider how the more often I let my mind wander when thinking about Bill, the more likely I am to depersonalize my understanding of him. Two things are happening here. I am setting aside constrained thinking, and I am adding novel information from other perspectives. This enables “chance convergence” or the combining of new and old ideas by chance.

The value of chance convergence is in the ideas that nobody has personally thought of before. Disrupting normal thinking allows for this possibility. This is beyond just sitting alone taking other perspectives; disruption requires setting up a structure to enable a more diverse perspective taking process.

Now let’s take the magic out of the equation

Say we have a slow hunch about something that may or may not be valid. The goal should be to develop this hunch: first, we need to protect it. Write down insights as often as possible. Set aside time to ponder and establish weak associations as you go. This is the “focus on learning” phase that enables sophisticated understanding of complex patterns or ideas.Card trick

Next, we need to develop the idea into something that has never been before. Here is the weird jump from deliberate focus to deliberate non-focus. Creative thinking is disruptive thinking; think about things in any way that can interrupt circular patterns. Set aside normal thinking in any way possible. Intentionally think about your hunch while cooking or at a party. Do this a lot and do this in diverse settings or during random activities.

This twofold process is iterative; go back to focus if you feel the thought is not developed enough to be played with. Here is the real art of it all: simultaneous monitoring of focus and non-focus, flexibility and agility in your thinking, and zooming in and out of focus.

How do we do this in the workplace?

Now that we understand innovation is more than a magical “ah-ha!” moment, what can be done to foster this way of thinking? Consider these suggestions:

  1. Support focus Schedules should allow for writing time, thinking time, and learning time. We need to value and respect time set aside to think and fully form thoughts as much as we value time to work (if we value innovation). Can you imagine if you scheduled a ten minute break in your day to write down or even just ponder a thought or connection you made earlier?
  1. Support provocation. Get people to disrupt their own or others’ thinking. Ever wonder why communication is so imperative to successful and competitive teams? I would bet on their ability to provoke others’ thinking without compromising relationships. If provocative thinking is supported, it will not be seen as aggression or personal attacking; take the ambiguity out of the equation and authorize out-of-the-box comments.


From your experience, what kinds of leadership behaviors are critical to driving an innovative culture?

As always, please let us know what you think.