Innovation Engine

Really creative people look at problems through a different lens, they often reframe the problem says Tina Seeling, executive director of Stanford University’s Technology Ventures Program. For example, instead of asking for a conclusion — what is the sum of 5 + 5? They would look at the equation by asking what two numbers add up to 10? She says:

Often the answer is baked into the question you ask, so if you don’t question the questions you ask, you’re not going to come up with innovative solutions.

Framing and reframing problems is a good way to increase our imagination, which is one of the six characteristics of truly creative people. Another way is by connecting and combining in interesting and surprising ways.

A third way to increase imagination is by challenging assumptions — going beyond the first right answer. Going for the second answer is my favorite cards in Dr. Roger von OechCreative Whack Pack app. Roger is the author of A Whack on the Side of the Head, a book that celebrated a quarter century in 2008.

We settle into comfortable routines and our thinking becomes rigid. To bring vitality back, we need a new challenge. For example, Seelig asked the students to document what they threw away in one day and to utilize the contents of their trash can to come up with something of value.

The fuel for imagination is knowledge — the more you know, the more you have to work with. Paying attention is one of the most powerful ways to get knpwledge about the world:

To be creative you must have a depth of knowledge as a starting point. It doesn’t have to be a direct match with the problems you are trying to solve. In fact, some of the most interesting innovations come from those outside of a particular domain.” 

Another important part of the innovation engine is attitude. Having the confidence to come up with different ideas is not easy, especially when we are afraid of failure.

True entrepreneurs are quilt-makers — they figure out how to leverage all the things they have at their disposal to make something happen. Attitude is the spark that gets imagination rooted on knowledge going. This is the inside of the Innovation Engine.

How many of us are stuck in environments that don’t allow the expression of creativity? Likely many of us. Seelig designed the outside of the Innovation Engine to address this challenge. Starting with habitat, looking at resources, and finally considering culture.

Habitat includes the people we work with, the rules, the rewards, and the incentives. The physical space is one of the things we don’t pay attention to. Says Seelig, the space in which we work is the stage in which we play our lives:

“We can’t build environments that stimulate the imagination unless we imagine them first. In turn, the environment affects the way we think. So the way we think affects the types of environments we build, and those spaces and the organization affects our imagination.”

Then comes resources and most of what we have are well beyond money, which is typically the objection to looking at innovation. People and not money are the essential component for innovation to take place in an environment. Natural resources, processes, and the community we can draw upon are other examples of non monetary resources at our disposal. In other words, we need to learn to make do with what we have better.

Finally, but not least important, is culture. How we deal with failure is an important aspect of culture. In InGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, Seelig says:

“There’s a huge problem with the word failure,” she says. “As a scientist, when I do an experiment that doesn’t work as I expected, what do I call it? Data. It’s not a failure. In fact, some of the most interesting scientific research comes from experiments that have unexpected results. The key is to look at the things that don’t come out as expected as data that provides interesting clues to what is really happening. If you are afraid of failure, you won’t try anything new.”

One creativity technique Seelig suggests is working within constraints:

“If you have a zillion dollars, then you probably will spend that,” she says, “but if you have less, you may come up with an interesting, more efficient solution.”

“If you have a zillion dollars, then you probably will spend that,” she says, “but if you have less, you may come up with an interesting, more efficient solution.”

Creativity does find an outlet in a constrained world. A simple change of words can make a big difference when it comes to experimenting and getting things done, even in highly regulated industries (where I spent many years of my career.) Add “how” to the question: can we do this?

Seelig’s framework for creativity shows how the individual and the environment are interdependent in interesting and non-obvious ways and essential for creative problem solving. Watch her talk below.


Like Sir Ken Robinson, Seelig believes that creativity can be taught:

Interacting with the world requires creative problem solving every day. Every sentence we utter is unique. We don’t just have robotic answers (…). Our brains are creativity machines.

Combine thinking of creativity as a process and not an event and the six characteristics of creative people, and you get to original ideas that have value.


About Deepak Devanand

Seeker of knowledge
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