Why even the way we innovate must change

No one doubts the enormity of the social challenges we face around the world but one critical element of our response must be the generation of new thinking and ideas. Yet creating the conditions that make this possible is not simple.

I’ve spent much of the last year at conferences and events of all sizes, most of which hoped to foster fresh thinking in a condensed time frame, that achieved varying degrees of success. So I wanted to share three observations about the necessary conditions for the successful generation of new ideas.

1. Structure: Any institution faces two basic choices if they hope to spark new ideas. One is to leverage the brains trust within their organization by creating a special event dedicated to new thinking. The other is to look outside themselves to stimulate solutions. Having participated in both strategies in various formats, more fresh ideas resulted when people from various disciplines and organizations were brought together and turned their attention on a problem that was often outside their discipline. By having to resolve an unfamiliar problem with people they didn’t know, more fresh thinking was generated simply because the exercise was a greater stretch on both a personal and intellectual level.

2. Specificity: When thinking through who to bring together to generate new ideas, it is more effective to combine specialists from very different and unrelated disciplines rather than a variety of people with different skills sets in the same field. This is because each person is challenged to stretch their thinking in new ways and to understand other ways of thinking.

3. Scale: The danger with large (100’s) or very large (1000’s) events is that while they provide the opportunity for individuals to connects with many other people and minds at once, it comes at the cost of intimacy. The ability for people to connect on an emotional level and to truly get to know each other by spending time together has a direct impact on the ability and willingness of people to share their thinking and the quality of the new ideas.

So having participated in many forums whose intention was to generate new solutions to major social challenges we all face, it proved most effective when a small group (50 or less) of specialists who did not know addressed a single issue. I suspect this is because it minimized the presence of old thinking in the room and maximized the demand on everyone to think in new ways.

As we approach each of the great social challenges of our time we must acknowledge that old thinking will not provide the new solutions we need. These solutions will be uncomfortable, hard to sell and risky to execute. But the cost of not doing so is even greater.

What conditions have you found were best to stimulate new ideas or innovation? What are some of the common obstacles you’ve observed?