Shifting the Patterns of Innovation

In a recent conversation with a client, the compelling business issue they were struggling with was how to become more innovative in their business. In a challenging industry, in an even more challenging economic environment, this was not an idle conversation.

The initial discussion centered on particular projects that would provide innovative outcomes. As we discussed these however, it became apparent that what was needed was not an “answer,” but new ways of asking the questions.

  Dr. Glenda Eoyang’s CDE (Containers, Differences, Exchanges) Framework  provides a model and method for systematically changing the patterns of innovation.  In thinking about changing Containers (different ways of clustering the elements of a system), consider bringing different people into the conversation. This might mean inviting varying management levels, customers and suppliers, and people from unrelated disciplines into conversation. Instead of using large groups, substitute 1 to 1 interactions and vice versa.

It often happens that the same type of employee is tasked with “being innovative.” Maximize the Differences by varying the type of people in the room. This means not only changing the job descriptions of those in the conversation, it also means varying the information processing styles, temperaments, and past experiences of those participating.

Changing the Exchanges suggests that a fundamentally different type of conversation takes place than usually occurs. Simply saying, “be creative” may not be sufficient to obtain the desired results. Consider varying the media and medium in which the creative conversation takes place. Ask verbal people to illustrate their ideas with sketches or photos. Ask visual people to physically mime a new concept or idea. Offer clay, building blocks, straws, and masking tape to engage the kinesthetic sense of those who are attempting to change their patterns of creativity.

Each of the above is a “reasonable” approach to pattern shifting. In certain situations, it might be an idea to take each of these pattern shifting ideas to an extreme.   An extreme container shift might be the result of bellowing ideas in the middle of a crowded bus or subway. An extreme difference intervention might include bringing requests for innovation to first grade students.

Another difference intervention would be to push on the edges of paradox, irony, and and tension. Challenging a group to come up with the least innovative idea they could consider; the idea with the biggest guarantee of failure; the idea that would put their business out of business immediately – would push the boundaries of difference to an extreme that might allow innovative thinking to flourish.

An extreme exchange intervention might include writing with a non-dominant hand. It might include some version of the Socratic method, where only questions can be asked. Another variation would be that the conversations that take place are constrained to only happen in whispers, or by shouting at the top of someone’s lungs.

Once again, in each of these cases the answer is not as important as shifting the way the conversation themselves are held. By clustering in different ways, focusing on different differences, and exchanging ideas in nontraditional forms, “exercising different mental muscles.” will occur. Innovate how you innovate!

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