Innovation through disciplined exploration

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Innovation through disciplined exploration and elaboration

Innovation comes from the deep knowledge and exploration of an individual’s thoughts as well as the incorporation of ideas and views of different worlds.

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Juliet Bourke is the author of Which two heads are better than one? How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions.

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Title             Which two heads are better than one?

Author        Juliet Bourke, Partner, Human Capital, Deloitte Australia

Publisher    Australian Institute of Company Directors

ISBN            978 1876 604295  

Purchase Which two heads are better than one? today with Australian Institute of Company Directors.

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Select above image to Purchase Which two heads are better than one? today with Australian Institute of Company Directors.

Innovation through disciplined exploration and elaboration doesn’t sound like the stuff of movies. In those stories, there’s always a eureka moment; a nugget of gold waiting to be revealed. And how do those moments happen? If the story involves a team, then the process will be one of random brainstorming. A process which, as the name implies, involves a maelstrom of ideas colliding across a table until brilliance prevails.

The trouble with this approach is two-fold. Firstly, there’s a trove of research questioning the productive value of random group brainstorming activities. Indeed, after reviewing 20 of these studies conducted over a period of 25 years, Syracuse University Professor Brian Mullen and his colleagues concluded,

 “It appears to be particularly difficult to justify brainstorming techniques in terms of any performance outcomes, and the long-lived popularity of brainstorming techniques is unequivocally and substantively misguided”.

Secondly, novel ideas are built off the backbone of existing ideas. They require deep knowledge of one’s own topic (with an incremental advance) and a stretch sideways (through the addition of a new perspective). If you were to visualise this, think of the letter “T” – deep thinking in one’s own domain capped off with a broader view, inspired by the thinking done by others in adjacent domains. DNA is a classic example – discovered by scientists who were expert in their own disciplines and who extended their thinking by combining the worlds of chemistry, biology and physics.

The “T” represents the conclusion of Professor Uzzi from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and his colleagues, after reviewing 17.9 million scientific articles published in the 1980s and 1990s. They were looking for the elusive factor(s) that created the “hit” articles, that is, research findings that were recognised by other academics as encapsulating a breakthrough idea. Their research established that innovative research teams base their insights upon previous conventional research findings within their own scientific discipline and integrate research findings from very a different discipline. For example the pairing of articles in Tetrahedron (a chemistry journal) with articles in Experiential (a bio-chemistry journal) would be conventional, but the pairing of Tetrahedron and Life Sciences (a journal focused on diseases and therapy) would be quite novel. It was the active incorporation of atypical information – from outside scientist’s usual research network – that made the difference. But it wouldn’t have made a difference without that bedrock of deep expertise in their primary domain.

Two different methods of innovation: Random brainstorming vs disciplined deep exploration of one’s own domain and elaboration on those ideas by boundary spanning and integrating ideas from someone else’s domain. As I said, not the stuff of movies. But it is the stuff of real life.

A world away from the pages of academic and scientific research, “exploration and elaboration” could be used to describe President Obama’s discussion strategy with his “Principals” (top political advisors like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton). It was a strategy he employed at a meeting on 15 March 2011 in the White House’s Situation Room when trying to decide how to respond to the threat Gaddafi has issued on 22 February 2011 - “to cleanse Libya, house by house”  - and France’s announcement on 13 March that it would seek a resolution from the U.N. to impose a No-Fly-Zone.

Should the US join the resolution when Obama knew would it have no practical value given that Gaddafi was advancing with ground troops, not air? When he knew that his military forces were under strain given their deployment into Afghanistan? And that, on a domestic front, the American public were divided about whether the USA even had a role to play in Libya?

A complex problem, requiring an innovative solution.

As the meeting commenced, Obama deeply explored the views of his expert advisors – one by one. Assisted by a map of each person sitting around the table to guide him as to the Principal’s potential view, he adopted a process of individual contribution:

“Obama structures meetings so that they’re not debates,” said a participant to the discussion on 15 March. “They’re mini-speeches. He likes to make decisions by having his mind occupying the various positions. He likes to imagine holding the view.”

That deliberate process is the antithesis of one of the hallmarks of random brainstorming: a cacophony of voices and the pursuit of ever more new ideas before the first idea is run to ground. 

And there was still more to Obama’s approach. After hearing from his Principals – and deciding that the advice was too binary (namely, endorse or reject the U.N. resolution), Obama elaborated the group’s thinking by drawing in additional perspectives. The views of those sitting around the edges of the room: the press secretaries, writers and junior staff members.

“What was a little unusual,” Obama admits, “is that I went to people who were not at the table. Because I am trying to get an argument that is not being made.”

Those people brought “public opinion” into the room, including stories about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. One was Pulitzer Prize winning author, Samantha Power, who had written about the “the moral and political costs the U.S. has paid for largely ignoring modern genocides”. Another was Antony Blinken, “who had been on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council during the Rwandan genocide”. It was enough to change the discussion and generate a related third option: seek a different resolution from the U.N. namely “to take ‘all necessary measures’ to protect Libyan civilians and then use American airpower to destroy Gad¬da¬fi’s army”.

Their innovative solution to halt Gaddafi’s march to Benghazi, home to 1.2 million citizens, was accepted by the U.N. on 17 March 2011.

It may seem a little extreme – or left field - to discuss innovation in the same breath as Libya in 2011.  And yet innovation is not just about designing the new iphone or uber service, it is about thinking differently when options seem binary or choices represent only an incremental advance on existing ideas. When a group is presented with imperfect information, uncertain outcomes and time constraints, and the status quo starts to exert its faithful pull back to the status quo.  And which leadership group would not recognise that scenario?

In those circumstances, crashing together people’s ideas through random brainstorming will not cut it. As Uzzi’s research revealed, innovation comes from deep knowledge and exploration of one’s own thinking world as well as the incorporation of ideas from a different thinking world. The Obama story brings this to life – and there’s the lesson for us. To innovate we must spend time exploring deeply our own domain – through reading or seeking input from other trusted advisers. And to stretch and elaborate we need insights from fringe dwellers, those who sit at the edges of our networks and help us span the boundary into new territory.  

1. Mullen, B., Johnson, C., and Salas, E., (1991) Productivity loss in brainstorming groups; A meta-analytic integration. Basic and applied social psychology Vol 12 (1), pp. 3-23.

2. Uzzi, B., Mukherjee, S., Stringer, M., and Jones, B., (2013) Atypical combinations and scientific impact Science Vol 342 pp. 468-472.

3. Lewis, M., (2012) Obama’s way, Vanity Fair, October 2012 http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2012/10/michael-lewis-profile-barack-obama

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