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Live from the Front End of Innovation 2015: Aline Wolff on Thinking More Innovatively

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How do you think something you've never thought before?

No matter what kind of problem you are trying to solve, the endeavor will go nowhere if you fail to ask the right questions. The challenge, however, is not just coming up with the right questions, but accessing the willingness to ask the sorts of questions that will incite innovative thinking.

Professor Aline Wolff's studio session was a hands-on tutorial on how to accomplish both processes.

What do we really want?

The first challenge was to design a better name tag using any parameters we wished. The lesson to be discovered was how to get past the fixed ideas we have about name tags, which we accomplished by asking what it was we really wanted out of a name tag. By being open and honest, and by being willing to pretend we could invent our way to any feature we wanted, our group designed a cool (we think!) electronic name tag that catered to what we considered to be the key aspects of a conference badge. Looking at the work of other groups, we found many points of overlap, but also something of each group's unique style as a team.

How does A mesh with B?

The second challenge was a forced mashup, in which we had to combine a kiwi and a ewer to design a new product. While many other groups designed as many combinations as they could, our team focused on creating one product that had elements of both the kiwi and ewer, namely a fruit holder that removes peels (using an attachment shaped like half of a kiwi) and prevents people from having to hold fruit with sticky juices in their hands.

Building on this exercise, Prof. Wolff suggested that companies use creative analogies like:

  • A cheeseburger is like the solution because...(Orin's aside: or, if you prefer)
  • If your idea were a lawn, what would the weeds be? How would you remove them?

Think with your hands

The last challenge was definitely the hardest. We were given craft materials (e.g., construction paper, stickers, clay) in order to solve a business problem. At first, we just let our hands "brainhandstorm" and made whatever shapes or ideas appeared. Then, keeping our business problem in mind, and trusting each other to make solid and meaningful contributions, we combined our designs into a "greenhouse" (a structure made of green construction paper!), on top of which we placed a "turbine" that one team member made, and to which we connected the "aqueduct" that I made, and "solar paneling" that someone else made. Our construction, like those of the other teams, became a symbol of the solution that we had to our business problem (in our case: making sure that companies can innovate by creating a sustainable cultural infrastructure [etc.]).

As Prof. Wolff pointed out, the hardest part was getting over our critical mentalities and accessing the non-judgmental and divergent thinking more frequently found on the playground. By trusting that we could converge on a solution later, we were all able to open ourselves up to the possibilities of the question that drives so much of innovation:

What if...?

About the author
Orin C. Davis is a self-actualization engineer who enables people to do and be their best. His consulting focuses on making workplaces great places to work, and his research is on flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. In addition to being the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory, the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark, a science advisor at Happify, and an advisor at FutureIdeas. Dr. Davis is an adjunct professor of Psychology and Management at Baruch College and a lecturer in Critical and Creative Thinking at UMass Boston. He writes and speaks avidly about human capital, creativity and innovation, and positive psychology. (@DrOrinDavis)

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