Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Koutstaal & Binks, Innovating Minds

People aspire to be innovators--to discover, invent, or create something. That something can be as mundane as the hula hoop or as intricate as a Bach fugue. It can be a different direction for a corporation or a better trading strategy. But just how do people innovate? And can would-be innovators get out of their mental guts and learn to be creative?

In writing about innovation, Wilma Koutstaal , a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, and Jonathan T. Binks, head of the consulting firm InnovatingMinds4Change, have joined a crowded field. Innovation is a hot topic these days, with numerous online courses and seemingly countless books on the subject.

Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change (Oxford University Press, 2015) isn’t going to set the world on fire, and I can’t even say it’s worth a quick read because it cannot be read quickly. But it presents a multidisciplinary, “science-based thinking framework” for trying to understand innovation. It raises five questions:

First, what ideas are competing for your attention and awareness, and how are you helping to form and reform them? Second: Should you be zooming out to a bigger picture, a more abstract perspective, or zooming in to a more detailed and specific view? … Third: Are you allowing sufficient room for both spontaneity and deliberateness in your creative process? Do you know when to trust your routines? Fourth: Are you receptive to the interplay of motivation, emotions, and perception in your thinking? How are you choosing your goals and keeping them in mind? Fifth: How are your physical, symbolic, and social thinking spaces (including your working tools) spurring or spurning creative insights? (p. x)

The authors don’t offer a step-by-step process for becoming innovative. Rather, using Alice Munro’s description of how she “goes into” a story written by someone else, they describe their framework as a house. Since I am a huge fan of Munro’s short stories, let me quote her on this point:

I can start reading them anywhere; from beginning to end, from end to beginning, from any point in between in either direction. So obviously I don’t take up a story and follow it as if it were a road, taking me somewhere, with views and neat diversions along the way. I go into it, and move back and forth and settle here and there, and stay in it for a while. It’s more like a house. Everybody knows what a house does, how it encloses space and makes connections between one enclosed space and another and presents what is outside in a new way. (p. 101)

The authors don’t write with the simple elegance of Munro. But their point is that “the thinking framework is a structure (not simply a list) because it allows us to organize and relate many ideas, including new ideas.” (p. 243)

Even though innovation doesn’t follow a linear path, one way to jump start creativity is to be told to be creative. “Setting ourselves the clear goal of being creative enables us to be more creative, demonstrating that creativity isn’t a single ever-present ability but is something we purposefully boost in response to particular contexts.” (p. 222)

So, dear reader, be creative! There, you’re off to a good start. My gift to you for the day.

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