Innovation: Overcome psychological inertia
Our brain works in a way that helps us understand the world quickly. We are good at finding patterns, applying proved solutions and learning from experience. Our brain and the way it thinks is an evolutionary advantage that has made us progress. However, sometimes the way it functions is a problem. Innovation is one of those moments. Let’s see an example:
In this picture we find two very different tasks from our brain’s point of view:
- The left column shows a task our brain LOVES doing: finding a pattern in mispelled words. Past experience and known solutions work great here, piece of cake for our brain.
- The right column shows a task our brain HATES: reading the word’s color instead of reading the written word. Past experience does not work here; even worse, past experience is a wrong solution. Our brain has to do things differently, which is tiring and frustrating. Unfortunately, innovation work must be disruptive and, therefore, looks pretty much like this type of task.
Our brain likes “doing the same things the way we have always done them”. This is called psychological inertia. Innovation needs disruptive thinking, which does not get along well with psychological inertia. This mental inertia prevents us from seeing unconventional solutions and is a great obstacle for breakthrough results. It is a wall between business as usual and innovation.
Experts define 3 main types of mental presumptions:
- Functional fixedness: Tendency to perceive an object as having a specific function, leading to inability to imagine new possibilities (e.g. a brick is used for building houses, but it can’t be used as a flower pot)
- Structural fixedness: Tendency to view objects as a whole. It makes difficult to imagine how the product could be reorganized differently (e.g. a regular bike vs. a folding bike)
- Relational fixedness: Tendency to view relationships and dependencies of a product or situation as static and permanent. One overlooks the possibilities of changing these dependencies to create new configurations (e.g. a rain umbrella used as a beach umbrella)
Combined with “Ideal Final Result” techniques (learn more here), innovation work benefits incredibly if we actively try to overcome the psychological inertia of our development team. The typical process is:
- Discuss the innovation challenge with the team.
- As a team, list the assumptions about the product of service that the team is analyzing (e.g. bricks are for building houses, cars need a park place…). This will create consciousness about our presumptions and prejudices.
- Challenge assumptions: think how can I eliminate the barriers, contradictions and limitations. Choose a “HCI” (how can I) or “WI” (what if) question and think how to eliminate the problem (e.g. how can I use bricks if building a house is not an option? How can I eliminate the need of a park place?)
This mental exercise can be very powerful. It opens our mind making obvious our assumptions and prejudices, and prepares our brain for the fight against standard solutions. Maybe, who knows, you will never look at your product / service in the same way.
Picture from: www.psychologyconcepts.com