Which to you is more important for innovation, a) math & computer science or b) creative problem-solving? The November 23, 2009 issue of Newsweek shares the results of the Newsweek-Intel Global Innovation Survey, and it showed some startling differences between perceptions of people in different countries. One statistic that jumped off the page at me was the disparity between what American and Chinese parents say are the most important skills their children will need to drive innovation. The American parents said it was "Math and Computer Sciences" (52% versus 9% of Chinese parents). The Chinese parents said it was "Creative Approaches to Problem-Solving" (45% versus 18% of American parents).
This struck a chord, because in America, too many blue-ribbon panels on innovation, made up of governement and/or business leaders focus on math & computer science as THE cure-all for innovation. But that is simply not enough. Math & computer sciences, as important as they are (and as much as we need to improve these skills in the US), are only a subset of creative problem-solving/creative process skills.
There is an overlap of the two, where math & computer science are more than creative problem-solving (2+2=4 is an example of non-innovation), yet still requiring creative problem-solving for difficult challenges (how to design and develop a smart electrical grid, or how to ensure that the electrical system and gasoline engine work together smoothly in a hybrid vehicle, are two examples). And there are creative problem-solving challenges that do not require math and/or computer sciences (creating new business models, developing new flavored products, or creating a more distribution channel). Yes, math & computer sciences may be useful tools for this, but they are only a portion of the complete tool box (in addition to marketing, finance, manufacturing, customer service, etc.).
If we take it to the next level, we see that innovation encompasses more than just creative problem-solving (for example, the launch of a new product that easily fits into a company's production, distribution, and brand portfolio doesn't require much problem-solving once the product itself is developed). And there is certainly math & science that are required for innovation, but there are still areas outside of math & science that have nothing to do with innovation (like how to program a computer to boot up a new software program, for example).
Let me be clear: math & computer science skills are critical for innovation, but they're not the only thing! They are necessary, but not sufficient.
Likewise, creative approaches to problem-solving are necessary yet not sufficient either. However, creative problem-solving is a skill set that relates more broadly than just math and science, and since it can be used in math & science, and beyond, I believe that it is a skillset that is more essential to driving innovation than just math & computer science.
Innovation doesn't happen without creative thinking and creative problem-solving. So if you want to drive innovation in your organization, it is critical to make sure that your people have -- in addition to math & computer science -- skills for creative thinking and creative problem-solving. These skills apply to math and computer sciences, plus marketing, finance, manufacturing, customer service, and so many more areas that drive your business.
No matter in what country you live, work, and innovate, make sure you and your team have creative problem-solving skills that they can apply to any innovation challenges they face.