Innovation Training: The 1% Solution

Formal brainstorming is fine 99% of the time. But what about the other 1%, when the solution is beyond the personal experience of the people in the room?

As the world continues to change rapidly, companies know they need innovation, not just from the R&D department but throughout the organization. So innovation has joined the list of training subjects for company-wide innovation. One innovation model dominates the field, and that’s fine: 99% of the time. But there is a precious 1% that calls for another method.

The dominant innovation method has these core components:

1. Do some kind of research.

2. Brainstorm to get an idea.

3. Test the idea to make changes.

There are many variations for all three steps. For example, Design Thinking uses customer anthropology for step 1, and prototyping for step 3. Sprint has many elaborate stages for step 2. But the basic three-part model remains constant across all popular innovation methods.

The 1% Solution is all about step 2. It offers an alternative to brainstorming, based on modern neuroscience research and careful study of how real-world innovations actually happen. And like brainstorming, you can teach it as a method at all levels across the company, for innovation problems of all kinds.

Here we refer to formal brainstorming sessions, not informal brainstorming where you pull me into your office to “brainstorm” about an idea or problem you have. Informal brainstorming is really just teamwork, and it’s a good thing. In formal brainstorming, you pose a problem and ask people to quickly throw out a solution. This method is based on a model of the brain that Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize for in 1981: the spontaneous generation of creative ideas from the right side of the brain versus the analytical left side. Neuroscientists now know that’s not so: There is no left and right brain when it comes to thinking. And even more important, analysis and intuition are not two different ways of thinking. All thinking requires both.

Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work on the new model of the brain that almost all neuroscientists now accept. They call it Learning+Memory: That is, through life you learn, which means you stock your memory. Then to think, you draw from that stock of memory to suit the situation at hand. Formal brainstorming relies on what is on the shelves of memory among the people in the room. And if you ask them to answer quickly, they draw from their own experience, not the full range of what they have learned. Drawing on your deeper memories requires quiet and calm, and it happens alone: That’s why you get your best ideas in the shower, driving, or falling asleep.

We can see now that formal brainstorming is fine 99% of the time. That is, if you have diverse people in the room, and they each have deep and diverse experience, you can solve a lot of problems. But what about the other 1%, when the solution is beyond the personal experience of the people in the room? And what if it is even beyond their deeper memories—that is, the solution depends on something they never learned?

Search for Answers

So what is the answer to that 1% of harder problems? Once you understand Learning+Memory, the answer is simple: You search. That is, you need to learn more things relevant to the problem and put them in your memory stock, to draw on them for your solution. The search itself is not simple, of course, and you get better at it through training and practice.

One key feature of the search is that you are not looking for “information”—there is an infinite amount of information you could gather about any difficult problem. Instead, you narrow your search to “examples”—that is, has anyone, anywhere ever solved any piece of this puzzle? That is a much higher standard, and it produces a much shorter list of results. Then you study your results and see if there is some combination that solves your problem to some degree. So the examples are not new; the combination is new.

T.S. Eliot, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, gives the main idea like this:

Immature poets imitate. Mature poets steal.

That is, your search for examples finds parts of what people did, not the whole thing. So Steve Jobs visits Xerox, where they show him a big computer in development that can do many things and costs $17,000. He “steals” just one thing: the graphical user interface, with a mouse to control it. He combines that with what he and his partner, Steve Wozniak, already made: the Apple II, which was the world’s first small, cheap, easy-to-use computer, with a green screen like all commercial computers at the time. Jobs combines what he “stole” from Xerox with the Apple II, and the result is the Macintosh, the world’s first small, cheap, easy-to-use computer with a graphical user interface and a mouse. And, of course, all computers now work that way.

This is the story of all successful innovations: creative combinations of previous elements. You can teach people to do it, and they can get better at it through practice. It takes a lot more time than brainstorming, so save it for those few big problems that are worth the time. That’s why we call it the 1% Solution.

Amy Murphy is a director with PwC U.S. advising business clients on innovation, strategy, and creativity. William Duggan teaches innovation at Columbia Business School. They are co-authors of the book, “The Art of Ideas.”


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