How to be More Innovative by Winning the Brain Game

5 Questions with Matthew E. May

How to be More Innovative by Winning the Brain GameBrainstorming. Problem Solving. Creative Thinking. These are all characteristics shared by the successful business professionals. However, you would be surprised to know that even the most successful businesspeople hold themselves back creatively because of ingrained patterns and “fatal flaws” in the way that we approach thinking.

So how do you retrain your brain to be even more creative and create better, more elegant solutions to problems?

Enter Matthew E. May, author of Winning the Brain Game; Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking.

Innovation Excellence sat down with Matt to get some insight that might help professionals everywhere to be able to get out of their own brain’s way.

1. What exactly does “Winning the Brain Game” mean? What does winning look like?

I define the “brain game” as the struggle between the biological brain and the conscious mind. Neuroscience has for decades confirmed a distinction. Likened to a computer, the brain is the passive hardware constantly storing experience, while the mind is the active software, directing our attention and thought. But the mind is not just any software—it’s intelligent software capable of rewiring the hardware, which, if left unchecked, reverts to stored patterns that can prevent us from solving tough and unfamiliar problems creatively, resourcefully, and elegantly.

Those stored patterns manifest themselves as observable human behavior, and there are seven of them that I have catalogued over the years of watching folks wrestle with the thought challenges. What is amazing is how consistently they fall victim to the same thinking traps and exhibit these seven behaviors:

  1. Leaping: brainstorming solutions before they understand the problem.
  2. Fixation: getting stuck in mental ruts that prevent them from thinking differently.
  3. Overthinking: complicating matters and creating problems that weren’t even there.
  4. Satisficing: glomming on to easy, obvious, mediocre and thus inferior solutions.
  5. Downgrading: formally revising the goal simply to declare victory.
  6. Not Invented Here (NIH): automatically dismissing the ideas of others.
  7. Self-Censoring: mindlessly rejecting their own ideas so others won’t.

The scientific community has a host of labels for these behaviors. Let me simplify things: they are fatal thinking flaws. Fatal in the sense that they prevent people from seeing the best of all possible outcomes: an elegant solution, which I define as one that achieves the maximum effect with the minimum means.

The good news is that there are seven time-tested “fixes” that neutralize, if not defeat entirely, those fatal flaws:

  1. Framestorming: instead of brainstorming solutions, brainstorm framing questions that produce better solutions.
  2. Inversion: completely reversing the status quo to take our thinking off-road, and escape the gravitational pull of experience.
  3. Prototesting: running simple, fast, frugal tests of prototype concepts and mockup solutions that are roughly right.
  4. Synthesizing: merging the best parts of two opposing but satisficing solutions in a mashup that solves the problem elegantly.
  5. Jumpstarting: effectively rebooting and redoubling our focus on both your will and your way in order to push past the stall point.
  6. Proudly Found Elsewhere (PFE): coined by Procter & Gamble, PFE is an open embrace of others’ innovative thinking.
  7. Self-Distancing: attuning our attention in a mindful way that produces an unbiased perspective.

These seven fixes represent a super-curated set of tools and techniques that I as well as others have developed, and which through my work I have found to be among the most effective and practical ways to not only neutralize the fatal flaws of thinking, but also forge new neural connections in the brain.

And that is what winning looks like to me!

2. Why are we so good at misleading ourselves?

Our brain is great at misleading us because it is an amazing pattern machine: making, recognizing, and acting on patterns developed from our experiences and grooved over time. Following those grooves makes us ever so efficient as we go about our day. The challenge is this: if left to its own devices, the brain locks in on patterns, and it’s difficult to escape the gravitational pull of embedded memory in order to see things in an altogether new light. In other words, those deep grooves make it tough to go offroad and, as the Apple tagline goes, think different.

Too, thinking different is taxing on our power supply, so the less thinking anew and more autopiloting our brain can do, the better. But a given pattern is really only effective in the right context; otherwise, we get misled in the name of conserving energy. That happens in the two most predominant thinking flaws: Leaping and Fixation.

Take Leaping and Fixation, for example. Immediately and instinctively leaping to solutions in a sort of mental knee jerk almost never leads to an elegant solution to an unfamiliar, complex problem, because not enough time is devoted to framing the issue properly. Fixation is an umbrella term for our general mental rigidity and linear thinking—our go-to mindsets, blind spots, paradigms, schemas, biases, mental maps, and models—that make it easier for us to make it through the day, but harder for us to flex and shift our perception. The term itself comes from what psychologists call “functional fixedness.”

Fixation and Leaping are interconnected . . . two sides of the same coin. If you spend a bit more time framing a tough problem properly, you can often avoid getting mentally stuck in gear.

3. Why do we as humans tend to accept the mediocre rather than fighting to find the elegant solution?

In Western societies, people favor action and implementation over nearly all else, and certainly over incubation. By nature we satisfice, a term combining satisfy and suffice, and coined by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon in his 1957 book Models of Man. We glom on to what’s easy and obvious and stop looking for the best or optimal solution, the one that resolves the problem within the given goals and constraints. We over-compromise and suboptimize, accepting the halfway solution and relying on our ability to push it forward. Unfortunately, when it comes to complex problems, that usually amounts to a rather Herculean but useless effort akin to pushing water uphill. We fool ourselves into thinking “good enough is,” thereby creating something that demands massive work in order to succeed. By thinking less, we end up working more.

A close cousin of Satisficing is what I call Downgrading. It’s basically Satisfying with a twist: a formal downward or backward revision of the goal or situation, often resulting in wholesale disengagement from the challenge. It comes in a few basic flavors. First, there’s the twisting and sifting of facts to suit our solution, arrived at by Leaping or Fixation. Second, there is the “revised estimate.” The result is the same: we fall short of the optimal or ideal solution, pick one that gets us most of the way there, then sell the upside and downplay the downside. Basically, we commit what amounts to preemptive surrender, which in a perverse way enables us to do what we really want to do, which is to declare victory. We do it all the time, because no one wants to feel like they didn’t succeed. It’s not very resourceful, creative, or heroic.

But here’s the thing: you can’t win a football game by aiming for the 97-yard line. You can’t score a run in baseball by only making it to third base. You can’t reach Mars by shooting for the moon. You can’t . . . well, you get the drift.

Studies of brainstorming sessions reveal that unfocused idea generation generally stalls after about 20 minutes. At that point most groups stop and turn their attention to evaluating their ideas. However, the research shows that teams with the best ideas don’t stop there. Rather, they embrace the psychological barrier and push through the stall zone, somehow resetting their minds to opening up new channels of widely divergent thinking.

What are some ways that people’s pursuit of innovation are frankly, mindless?

Two ways, really…the sixth and seventh flaws I mentioned earlier: Not Invented Here syndrome, or NIH, and Self-Censoring.

Not Invented Here syndrome is a well documented concept in management literature — I found over 600 journal articles referring to it — defined as an automatic negative perception of, and visceral aversion to, concepts and solutions developed somewhere else, somewhere external to the individual or team, often resulting in an unnecessary reinvention of the wheel. It means, “If I/we didn’t come up with it, I/we won’t consider it,” and “I/we can do anything you/they can do, better.”

Here’s the thing: we don’t trust other people’s ideas and solutions. We don’t share others’ bias for optimism, and we tend to view others’ ideas with utter skepticism. While there may be a basis in neuroscience related to triggering our threat response, our expression of it is always the same: shutting out another person’s or group’s idea immediately and without due consideration merely because they came up with it. The next time you’re in the lobby waiting for the elevator to go up to your office or hotel room, count how many people hit the “up” button even though they can see that you’ve already pushed it. That’s NIH.

Then there’s Self-Censoring. When we reject, deny, stifle, squelch, strike, silence, and otherwise put ideas of our own to death, sometimes even before they’re born, it is an act of Self-Censoring. I believe Self-Censoring is the deadliest of the fatal flaws, because in my admittedly subjective opinion, any voluntary shutdown of the imagination is an act of mindlessness, the long-term effects of which eventually kill off our natural curiosity and creativity. It’s like mental masochism: we field or create a great idea, we recognize it as such, but deny or kill it anyway. I often think of it as “ideacide.” Whether it’s because we’re too critical or because we recoil at the impending pain of change and disruption of normalcy, Self-Censoring arises out of fear. That fear shrinks us, mentally. We lose our childlike, uncensored urge to play, explore, and experiment. We render ourselves truly mindless. When that happens, we are vulnerable to our other thinking flaws, such as Fixation and Overthinking, which become both judge and jury. Then we slap ourselves on the forehead when someone else “steals” our great idea.

4. Should innovation influence strategy or should the strategy direct the innovation efforts of a company?

Yes. I don’t mean to be glib, but the two concepts are inexorably linked. And, both concepts are subject to context. Let me take a step back and first offer my definitions for both.

When it comes to strategy, I subscribe to the approach devised and taught to me by my esteemed colleague and mentor Roger Martin, #1 on the Thinkers50 list, coauthor of bestselling book Playing to Win, and one of the foremost business strategists on the planet: “Strategy is an integrated cascade of choices that uniquely positions a player in its market to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.”

The cascade he is referring to consists of five tightly integrated questions:

  1. What is our winning aspiration?
  2. Where will we play?
  3. How will we win?
  4. What capabilities do we need?
  5. What management systems are required?

Now, the definition of innovation I prefer is rather simple: Innovation is the implementation of creative concepts that are both novel and useful.

Where strategy meets innovation is at the question, “How will we win?” Because the only way to win in today’s world is to offer a better value equation than existing alternatives. And to consistently win, you need a sound strategy.

5. What’s next for you? What project is on the back burner for you waiting for a chance to boil?

I always have a couple projects waiting in the wings. Recently I have launched two of them, as they are related. One is called The Idea Score™ which is an innovation index that serves as a FICO-like “credit rating” for projects in a company’s innovation portfolio, enabling managers to evaluate and compare innovative concepts, as well as prioritize and allocate investment resources. Like a credit score, it acts as a “meta metric” by being a single predictive indicator of the project’s eventual impact or success, based on three primary factors: Fit, Ingenuity, and Scale. And, like credit scoring, the Idea Score is based on an innovation index with 850 as the highest score. I’ve been working on it for 5 years, using the talents of a data scientist. We have a proprietary algorithm that produces the score.

Idea Score Scale

The other is a Strategic Innovation System, again the culmination of a decade of working with innovation efforts. The Strategic Innovation System (S.I.S.) is a total innovation management framework designed to repeatedly and consistently guide creative concepts from inception to launch. It features a proven process and powerful toolkit that enables any business to realize sustainable success from innovation initiatives and investments. Installed as a holistic operating system, the S.I.S. builds creative capability and confidence, which in turn provides a strong foundation for a companywide culture of innovation. The model can be visualized as three tightly integrated, constantly turning gears, the “3Gs”: Governance, Generation, and Go-to-Market.

Strategic Innovation System Animated

And that’s it…should keep me busy and out of trouble!

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Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, builds sustainable innovation cultures, and tools for creating successful change. He is the author of the five-star book Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire and the creator of a revolutionary new Change Planning Toolkit™. Follow him on Twitter (@innovate) and Linkedin.

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