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Innovation is nothing but a new combination of old ideas: Sheena Iyengar

Creativity is not reserved for a select few, anyone can be creative once they understand the roadmap to innovation, says Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar

Published: Jan 31, 2024 01:31:01 PM IST
Updated: Jan 31, 2024 01:38:27 PM IST

Innovation is nothing but a new combination of old ideas: Sheena IyengarSheena Iyengar is the author and ST Lee Professor of Business at Columbia Business School

Sheena Iyengar is the ST Lee Professor of Business at Columbia Business School and the author of The Art of Choosing and Think Bigger: How to Innovate. As an expert on choice and innovation, Iyengar's TED Talks have received 7 million collective views. She has spoken at and consulted 200 companies including Google, AB Insurance, Bloomberg, E&Y, PwC, Target, Deloitte, among others. In an interview with Forbes India, she explains how to create powerful ideas for problem-solving

Q. Why do we need to ‘think bigger’ in the context of innovation?
‘Think Bigger’ offers a new method for innovation backed by what we have learnt from neuro- and cognitive science over the last two decades. Its six-step methodology helps users avoid the trap of solving a problem that turns out to be the wrong problem—which 72% of companies often fall into. It offers a new perspective that encourages its users to bring a useful, novel solution into the world.

Q. What are the basic steps involved?
These six steps work together like a beautiful jazz song—non-linearly.

  • Step one: Choose the right problem and understand it well
  • Step two: Break it into subproblems
  • Step three: Compare the wants of three groups of stakeholders related to the context of your problem
  • Step four: Search in and out of the box, and ask yourself if anyone, anywhere, at any time has solved one of your subproblems
  • Step five: Choice Map—lay out all the pieces of the puzzle, and combine and recombine until they click into place
  • Step 6: The Third Eye—Take what you have been working on, primarily yourself, outside to find out how others see it
Q. How would you define ‘innovation’?
Innovation is nothing more, and nothing less, than a new combination of old ideas. I am going to take an apolitical innovation that exists everywhere. The story begins in Philadelphia, in the 19th century, with a woman by the name of Nancy Johnson. She was fifty-two years old and the wife of a chemistry professor. She saw that ice-cream making was time-consuming and required a tremendous amount of labour, which ultimately made it very expensive.

She felt that solving the main problem was too complex, so she broke it down into subproblems: How can I make the ice-cream colder faster and preserve it? How do I create a method for mixing the cream that involves less labour? How do I make ice-cream smoother and creamier?

Johnson found an “old idea” or a precedent that worked for each subproblem and then combined those, leading to the innovation. She went on to file a US patent in 1843 and later sold it to a kitchen wholesaler. By the 1870s, even when ice-cream production had increased tenfold, each iteration of the ice-cream maker used Johnson’s device as the base mechanism.

Q. ‘The Third Eye’—how does it bring out the innovator within?
The Third Eye is a metaphor for perception beyond ordinary sight. For instance, when you and I look at the same oak tree, our physical eyes may work in the same way. But we each see something different in our mind’s eye. That difference comes from who we are, what we have experienced, and what we remember. When it comes to ideas—versus oak trees—this difference can be very great indeed. Thankfully, that difference can also inspire us to cultivate our ideas further. In the Third Eye, you take your idea out of your own mind and put it into the minds of others. What they see helps you see better how to improve your idea.

Also read:  How to ensure innovation works for everyone and not just a few?


Q. Is creativity accessible to all?
It has long been assumed that creativity is reserved for the so called “right-brained” individuals. But the theory of the “left vs right” brain is a myth.

From the moment you are born, your mind gathers information, breaks it down, and stores it on shelves of memory. Whenever you need it, your brain pulls out these memories to form new thoughts. All thinking, logical and creative, has its basis in memory. What we see now is that the creative combination for innovation is on one end of the same continuum as everyday thinking. They are both acts of imagination that draw on memory—not occurring on one side of your brain or the other, but rather both working in tandem.

In 2006, neuroscientists tracked brain images of adults, children learning algebra, and mathematically advanced children as they solved a basic arithmetic problem, an algebra problem with three levels of difficulty, and a geometry problem. As they worked, each person’s neural system lit up like a Christmas tree—on both the right and left sides of the brain. As participants explained how they went about solving the problems, they used just as much creativity as they did analysis. It’s impossible to disentangle the two when problem-solving.

Q. How crucial is it to break down a problem?
In order to solve a larger problem, you have to first identify and solve the smaller subproblems. In 1899, when Henry Ford established his car company, a motor vehicle was too expensive—costing anywhere between $850 and $2,000. He broke down this problem into subproblems: How do I reduce the cost of labour? How do I reduce production time? How do I reduce the cost of materials? This allowed him to address each separately, which ultimately led to his innovation that solved the larger problem at hand.

Q. Can choice mapping lead to better solutions?
Choice mapping is all about combining and re-combining the different tactics for each subproblem, to form new ideas. For instance, the problem Mahatma Gandhi wanted to solve was: How do I help Indians gain independence from the British? There were three critical sub-problems: How can subjugated people take effective action against a mighty power without violence? How can I unite people divided by religion, caste, language, and geographic region? How can I gain support for new ideas in the face of traditional beliefs?

For the first subproblem, Gandhi used the tactic of the suffragette movement led by Emmaline Pankhurst—marches and hunger strikes. He developed it further as a philosophy for non-violent civil disobedience. For the second, he turned to Leo Tolstoy. For the third, he looked to an ancient Indian tradition: The holy man, and started talking, acting and dressing the part. Thus, Gandhi combined disparate tactics to create a movement that encompassed all his sub-problems and, ultimately, solved his main problem.

Q. How does brainstorming compare with it?
Brainstorming is just a numbers game. In fact, the evidence is unambiguous—brainstorming does not work. In a 1987 study, social psychologists Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe collected ideas from participants gathered in groups of four in a traditional brainstorming session. They then took the ideas of four individuals who worked separately and collected their ideas. Participants who generated ideas alone produced significantly more than those who worked in traditional group sessions. Those who ideated alone produced twice as many unique ideas than those who worked in a brainstorming group.

Q. Does working in teams necessarily make us more creative?

Dozens of studies document that almost every measure of group diversity enhances creativity and performance. Still, we tend to find a certain difficulty in leveraging diversity, one that Think Bigger helps to address.

Simply bringing people from different backgrounds together to sit at one table is not enough. To leverage diversity of thought, you must have a culture of information sharing and conflict resolution/minimisation where all voices are heard, respected, and understood. In practice, I can say that the Choice Map naturally—and effectively—creates a group dynamic that encourages divergent thought and truly leverages the power of diversity.

Q. Three attributes needed to build a ‘think bigger’ mindset…

  • Curiosity
  • Perseverance
  • Creative thinking

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