Posted: 04 Jan. 2021 5 min. read

To activate innovation, check your edge

(This is the seventh post in the Breakthrough Manifesto series, an exploration of Business Chemistry and how to tackle solving really tough problems. If you missed the introduction, read it here.)

"If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities." – Maya Angelou

The seventh principle of the Deloitte Greenhouse Breakthrough Manifesto is check your edge. By this we mean to push your thinking and ask yourself repeatedly whether your ideas are truly innovative or unique.

In his book The Difference, Scott Page discusses the heuristics people use in problem-solving. These mental shortcuts simplify or speed up the process of solving a problem and often result in a good enough solution, if not always the best solution. Among the heuristics Page highlights is localization of one's search for solutions. At risk of oversimplifying his sophisticated analysis and illustration, and taking some liberties at the same time, I'll ask you to imagine you and your team are standing in a valley with a vast mountain range stretching around you in every direction. Maybe there's low cloud cover that keeps you from seeing the peaks of the mountains. Your goal is to reach the highest peak you can. Where do you begin your search? Likely nearby (this is the localizing part). Maybe you split up into two or three groups and go in different directions to diversify your search, but still it's somewhat limited. When you come back together and describe where you've all been, you're able to identify the highest local peak, and you call it a victory.

But suppose one individual decides to search beyond the nearby peaks. The rest of you don't think it makes sense and advise against it, but she thinks the team is limiting itself too much, and she travels further away, to a totally different part of the range. And then she falls into a crevasse. Luckily, she has her radio, so she calls for help, and the rest of the team comes together and pulls her out, grumbling a few "I told you sos." Once your teammate has her boots firmly planted on safe ground, everyone else begins to look around and soon realizes you're standing at the base of a mountain that (from here, at least) looks to be much taller than the highest peak you previously reached. You climb it together and reach the summit, where you can finally see over the cloud cover. You celebrate that you have now actually reached the highest peak in the range, and all because a teammate had a crazy idea that itself turned out to be not so great.

The story highlights two important points when it comes to checking your edge. One, when you limit your search for solutions to where you currently are, you may find one that improves your situation, but it may not be the best solution you could have reached. And sometimes that's good enough. But if you're looking for breakthrough—to be able to see over those clouds—you may have to start your search further away. In other words, you may want to start with ideas that seem quite outlandish.

The second point is that sometimes a "bad" idea can free you from your myopic focus on what's nearby and bring you to a new spot where you can see a truly unique solution. It doesn't matter that the original idea isn't a good one if it brings you to a new place. I referenced a similar point in my last post of this series, on why it's beneficial to enlist a motley crew.

Of course, radical change is not always what's called for, and sometimes an idea can be just too outrageous. Filmmaker Rob Minkoff explains it this way: "If it's not original enough, it's boring or trite. If it's too original, it may be hard for the audience to understand. The goal is to push the envelope, not tear the envelope." If an idea is so far outside the current reality that no one else can grasp it, it's not likely to help you. Suppose your adventurous team member had traveled so far from everyone else she was out of radio range. She'd then be languishing in a crevasse at the base of the highest mountain, which the team would never reach, and she would likely perish as a result.

Here's where having a mix of Business Chemistry types around is likely to be effective.

When it comes to identifying highly creative ideas, divergent thinking is key, and Pioneers are often the type that come first to mind. Pioneers are known for embracing novelty, for exploring possibilities, and for blue-sky thinking. They're likely to revel in traveling far outside the bounds when it comes to brainstorming (or mountain-climbing!). They're the most likely type to believe that with great risk can come great reward and that experimenting with new approaches is better than learning from the past. They're the most imaginative, original, and spontaneous type, the best at making unique or unexpected connections, and most likely to be comfortable with ambiguity and to go with their gut. If you want really breakthrough ideas, engaging a Pioneer or two is a good place to start.

And yet, creativity isn't just about coming up with new ideas, but also about narrowing down which ideas to pursue and transforming them into reality. And this requires moving from divergent to convergent thinking. It involves prioritizing, considering implications, planning, diving into details, and a good dose of practicality, all things that Pioneers are less likely to embrace. In Wired to Create, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and writer Carolyn Gregoire describe the requirements of convergent thinking as "the ability to conform, put in the hard effort necessary to exercise practicality, and make ideas tenable." And that's why it's good to work with people who are different from you, because those things are among the Guardian's superpowers.

In his book Originals, psychologist Adam Grant hints at one of the reasons Pioneers and Guardians can make a powerful partnership: "Radical thinking is often necessary to put a stake in the ground"; reaching a broader audience, however, may require tempering. Starting with tempered thinking may not get you too far (like our highest-peak-seeking team), but radical thinking untempered may leave you far away and alone (like our crevasse-dwelling teammate).

It's not only Pioneers and Guardians who should be working together; Drivers and Integrators have a role to play here as well. Because they each share traits with both Pioneers and Guardians, Drivers and Integrators can help bridge the gap between them while also bringing their own unique traits that can help. Drivers embrace risk and originality almost as much as Pioneers, and Scientists, in particular, are imaginative and exploratory. Like Guardians, though, Drivers are more detail-focused, and Commanders, in particular, are practical and like to plan things out. If the problem you're trying to solve is in a quantitative or technological realm, Drivers have particular strengths to offer there.

Integrators and Guardians tend to be alike in the value they place on getting everyone on the same page, and for Teamers in particular, that page tends to be a practical one. Integrators share the Pioneer's comfort with ambiguity, but perhaps more importantly, they share a relationship focus and a desire to help and work together with others—a key orientation for getting creative.

Kaufman and Gregoire suggest that really creative people can flexibly switch back and forth between divergent and convergent thinking, depending on what's helpful in the moment. Further, they cite research demonstrating that such people have what they call messy minds and can activate and deactivate various brain networks that tend to be at odds with each other in most people—cognitive and emotional, or deliberate and spontaneous, for example. If you're one of that rare breed, then you're in luck! You may be very creative all on your own. If not, then it's a good idea to work closely with your different-type colleagues so that you can do the necessary switching back and forth as a team, even if, as individuals, you can each do so only in some limited way.

In his book A More Beautiful Question, journalist Warren Berger describes his realization that designers, inventors, and engineers often come up with ideas and solve problems by starting with questions. Those initial questions often sound something like "Why are we doing this particular thing in this particular way?" I discussed in my post about the first Breakthrough Manifesto principle, strip away everything, how our assumptions and orthodoxies regarding how things are done or should be done can get in our way. When we question why, we're on our way to coming up with something new and interesting. What often follows these why questions are what if questions, as in "What if we could do something differently?" And finally, how questions come close behind: "How might we do so?"

Returning to our mountain-climbing gang, some why questions might be: "Why are we exploring only nearby mountains?" or "Why are we searching when the weather conditions aren’t ideal?" or even "Why are we looking for the tallest mountain in the first place?"

Some what if questions might be: "What if we could quickly travel further away to search?" or "What if we had some way to see over the clouds?" or even "What if we searched for the deepest valley instead?"

Some how questions might be "How might we document what our search reveals so it can be shared with others?" or "How might we use drones to aid our search?" or even "How might we devise a gadget that can prevent a person from plunging headlong into a crevasse?"

As you can likely see, sometimes asking questions can bring you to quite different places than searching for solutions. You may end up pursing an unexpected, surprising, or, dare I say, edgier path as a result. And that might be what leads you to breakthrough.

One of the most powerful ways to use questions to get to really creative ideas is to come up with a lot of them, a technique called question-storming by the Right Question Institute. Practitioners of this method suggest that it’s easier for most of us to come up with questions than with ideas or solutions and that a group should aim for 50 or more questions about any particular topic because the best ones often come after that point. In the example above, I offered nine questions, each of which would point our team in a somewhat different direction on their search. Just think where another 40 or 50 questions might lead.

Actions in summary for encouraging your team to check your edge:

  • Start your search for ideas further away from where you currently are
  • Explore what you can learn from "bad" ideas
  • Work together to switch between and integrate convergent and divergent thinking
  • Ask why, what if, and how questions, and practice question-storming

For some bonus ideas on how to encourage those who are reluctant to come up with "out-there" ideas, see my previous post, To boost creativity, silence your cynic.

To learn how respectful, open debate can help you solve problems, read my next post, which focuses on the eighth Breakthrough Manifesto principle, don’t play “nice.”

And if you simply can’t wait to learn more about our Breakthrough Manifesto or how the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience might help your team attain breakthrough results, explore and get in touch here.

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.