How to Encourage Human Innovation

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As the human race explored and expanded across the earth, we developed languages, agricultural systems, colonized new areas, created pyramids and interconnected networks for communication. Our creative responses to the uncertainty and discomfort of exploration drove the creation of our most enduring innovations. The development of math, writing, and touch screens have all sprung from carefully considered exploration of what is and what could be.

But while creativity has allowed us to flourish, many of our basic survival tactics simply serve to let us live for another day. In the face of a charging rhino, there may not be time to craft a novel armor piercing spear; it’s simply time to run for cover.  The human brain has evolved to protect itself from patterns of harm and emphasize strategies that succeeded in the past. New is bad and familiarity becomes a handy shortcut to conserve energy and obtain consistently acceptable outcomes.

Two Danger Zones in Innovation

So how do we suppress our survival instincts to tap into our creative tendencies?  As the human brain approaches the unknown in product development there are really two danger zones to be aware of.

1. Common Sense - A great expression of our ability to recognize and select a response; common sense allows us to efficiently navigate new situations in our world. But when we seek innovative solutions, common sense can blind us to key inputs and alternate responses that may underlie a new solution space.

New solutions, by definition, are not recognized by our brains and therefore may not "feel" like a sensible solution. We don't get to automobiles by incrementally breeding faster horses. Similarly, we don’t get the iPhone if we strive to engineer the best buttons for our new phone. Sticking to common sense solutions can de-risk a bad outcome but at the same time, insulate from a huge positive outcome.

2. Overwhelming Complexity - At the other end of the spectrum we have big complex topics that we feel powerless to impact, such as climate change. When the problem is influenced by more variables than we can reasonably measure, a normal and sensible reaction is to become apathetic or fatalistic; "there's nothing I can do", "it won't impact me", "someone else will have to deal with this." 

20 years ago the delivery of a new heart valve without opening the chest might have sounded like a similarly sized challenge. Or the insertion of a pacemaker as an outpatient procedure. Or continuous glucose monitoring. Or any of a hundred other opportunities that were insurmountable then but commonplace now.

And while today's trans-catheter valve therapies indeed included some incremental progress to overcome some of the implementation challenges, I believe these MedTech revolutions are fostered by teams that can balance their "common sense" with the  breakdown of complex problems into addressable ones.

Break the Rules: Creating the Best Environment for Innovation

How do we recognize, build, and encourage the teams that bring these types of innovations to market? 

The old-school brainstorm session is still commonly used as a structured group-think format. But it requires careful guidance to encourage participation from all members and to generate the innovative ideas you’re hoping for. A single dominant personality can "sell" their solution at the start of the activity, subsequently drawing all attention to judging and refining that single idea. 

Here at our studio, Director of Mechanical Engineering, Don Baumgarten, has been experimenting with different concept ideation approaches for years. He has found some elements that greatly improve the output from team ideation sessions: 

1. Have a clear objective. Address a minimal set of goals and work to create clarity around them.

2. Ensure participants have the same level of background information. Give everyone the same input information on the product, client, technology or concept. Ideally in the same format and meeting.

3. Use a creativity warm-up exercise. Engage team members in creative thinking that is unrelated to the problem at hand. This activity helps the team free themselves from common-sense thinking and raises the energy level in the room.

In a recent session held to generate ideas for a new surgical tool, Don presented a creativity warm-up challenge to the team. He asked them to imagine that they were not happy with the view from the kitchen window in their house. He then asked them to develop purely logical ways to fix that problem, ignoring all practical limitations of how they would implement their ideas or how much an idea might cost.

While considering options such as “rotate the house to see a better view” and “display a beautiful holographic image in the window” may not be practical, they help the brain break free from the creeping bounds of common sense.

4. Manage the constraints and complexity. There is no innovation without constraints that must be worked around, but the human brain can only process so many at one time. Removing some constraints, or narrowing focus, can help the brain work more effectively. 

For example, in a recent redesign project for an in-vitro diagnostics system, our design team was given a usability improvement goal and a large “Keep Out Zone” that indicated where the client did not want our team to make changes. In the first round of ideation, Don demanded that all solutions violate the “Keep Out Zone”. While this set of solutions did not meet their original requirements, they spurred much more radical approaches with a higher potential for finding a “breakthrough idea” for the design.

Research has shown that on average, humans can hold seven concepts in their short term memory (Miller, 1955). Thus the enduring seven digit phone number. If we don’t limit the number of parameters and constraints in a given discussion, participants may lose track and feel overwhelmed.

5. Individual writing instead of group brainstorming. Team members sketch and write down their solutions without social interaction. One idea per page, no peeking, everyone draws or writes at the same time. This prevents dominant personalities from controlling the ideation direction (avoiding groupthink).

 So, as we try to produce new solutions to real human problems we must avoid letting common sense and apparent complexity obscure opportunity or overwhelm our primal brains.

The Difference Between Growth and Stagnation

Innovative thinking requires clear objectives, space to explore different alternatives without fear, and a way to manage complexity. In any industry, innovative thinking can make the difference between growth and stagnation (or worse, your product flops completely). These suggestions will help you break tradition and work against your brain’s natural tendency to play it safe.