Empowering innovation is easy if you know your ABCs

Last week we were featured on CMO.com. Check out our first article below and keep an eye on our Empowering Innovation series at CMO.com.

The future of business success lies in the hands of Millennials who have a better understanding of the modern world than our incumbent business leaders. Apparently.

According to research, Millennials embrace innovation and entrepreneurship, aspiring to run their own business rather than taking a CEO role at an established organisation (Bentley University 2014). But if Millennials are meant to be the generation that helps aged business to understand the future of digital innovation, then you could argue that they are probably too old to make a difference. Seriously. It would be better if your company was run by four to eight year olds.

Of course that’s a crass statement but stay with me. A person’s self-identity settles in late adolescence, typically around late teens and early 20’s, around the time when the brain shows signs of slowing down. As people get older they become subject matter experts, yet paradoxically they are less able to learn new information, partly due to their intrinsic motivation to be identified and distinguished among peers, and also because our brains are less able to take on new information due to a decrease in brain neuroplasticity. The net result is that we lose our insatiable urge to be curious and learn about the world, which is omnipresent in the behaviour of children.

Slowing curiosity
This slowing curiosity has a knock-on effect for our working lives. The Rare: Innovation Index, conducted in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University in October 2015, showed only 46 per cent UK businesses surveyed looked outside their own category for inspiration. But the next big innovation is unlikely to come from an expert within your own category. Take FMCG. Some of the most ground-breaking food innovations didn’t come from FMCG brands–many of the most significant developments actually came from the US army. Instant coffee can be traced to wartime innovations in blood plasma transport, the McDonald’s McRib has origins in the military’s research into “fabricated modules of meat,” and the finger-staining dust on Cheetos can be traced back to a dehydrated, compressed “jungle” cheese invented by government scientists in 1943. By the way, we didn’t gain this category-specific insight from an FMCG publication, we took it from the 99% invisible podcast.

So what’s limiting our ability to take inspiration from places less familiar to us? Our research above suggests that it’s not that we are all too busy–only 24% of people claim that other business priorities are a significant barrier to innovation–so the answer could partly lie in our approach to learning as adults.

Research demonstrates that babies as young as two months show a preference for unfamiliar patterns compared to familiar ones. Around the age of one, children start to point at things and seek their parents gaze for answers–even before they speak they are asking questions with their fingertips. As they get older and acquire linguistic abilities the learning becomes more tangible. Girls aged four ask up to 390 questions per day, as they try to understand more about the world, and its meaning. That’s a question every one minute 56 seconds, each day.

More habits, fewer questions
As adults we tend to ask much less, and have set habits and rituals that make us less willing to explore new ideas. Habits are great for reducing cognitive burden so that we can get on with making important day-to-day decisions, but they can narrow our focus. Adult learning is often more convergent, in smaller steps; seeking out learnings that are in some way related to what we already know. At a very young age, children are happy to accept the learning they are given and have no need to understand its purpose. For example, a child would not question the long-term importance of understanding why 1+1=2. But as adults, we want to be self-directed at learning. This is partly due to our sophisticated sense of self-identity, and partly because the social structures of our adult lives don’t necessarily permit constant learning in the same way.

So what does this mean day-to-day? At face value this makes tough reading for any adult. But there are ways to make learning habitual. Probably the best advice given at#Inspiration2015, an conference about ideas hosted by Digital Doughnut, came from Paul Bay of Citizen Bay. Wary of the social constraints and responsibilities of work, Bay advocates that we spend an hour a day reading or looking into ideas that do not necessarily focus on what we do at work, by being curious.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. In the adult world, being curious doesn’t require you to travel too far to find new ideas. There are many tools that help you do that. You could start by subscribing to a useful resource like Springwise (for daily reports on top innovations) or 99% Invisible (to explore the origins of some of the most important inventions we see today) to expand your horizons beyond your category.

Making child's play a habit
That’s a great starting point, but in order to affect change it is important to make child’s play a habit. If we want to embrace our inner child then we need to rethink our own behaviours with these three simple tenets:

  •      Accept that everyone is creative. There is no such thing as a creative type. That’s just a label that adults have created. We all have the capacity to create. Ideas come from everyone at all levels, but only if we set the environments to let them happen.
  •      Accept all ideas have value All ideas have value. Rather than disregard exploratory ideas, set them into context and prioritise them.
  •      Accept mistakes. A child’s development is a like a series of ‘test & learn experiments’. Adults are often fearful of failing, but it’s failure that helps us learn.

Inspiration as simple as ABC. Always. Be. Curious.

Ben Pask – Co-Founder

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