Innovation Anxiety

Innovation Dream Team
March 1, 2009
Innovation Adjacencies
March 18, 2009

Innovating is hard work. Perhaps the most difficult aspect is dealing with the anxiety that comes with following a systematic process. The process forces innovators to start with uncomfortable, abstract concepts that seem silly and worthless. These are called preinventive concepts because they occur right before the moment of innovating. Successful innovators learn how to deal with ambiguity and control the anxiety at this critical moment of invention. But there is a catch: some of us are better at it than others. Fortunately, there is a way to determine if you are more or less anxiety-ridden from these effects.

Innovating is hard work.  Perhaps the most difficult aspect is dealing with the anxiety that comes with following a systematic innovation  method. The process forces innovators to start with uncomfortable, abstract concepts that seem silly and worthless.  These are called preinventive concepts because they occur right before the moment of innovating.  Successful innovators learn how to deal with and control the anxiety at this critical moment of invention.  But there is a catch: some are better at it than others.  Fortunately, there is a way to determine if you are more or less anxiety-ridden from these effects.

Anxiety is a natural part of the SOLUTION-TO-PROBLEM approach.  What causes it?  Finke, Ward, and Smith describe it in their classic book, Creative Cognition.  Once you have transformed an existing situation (product, service, etc), it becomes a hypothetical solution to a yet-to-be-found problem.  The trick to great innovation is to construct preinventive structures that have these properties:

  • Novelty: the degree to which the structure is uncommon or different than what you know of it in its original form
  • Ambiguity: the degree to which the structure is unclear, obscure, or vague.  It puzzles.  A more ambiguous structure lends itself to more original and unexpected interpretations.
  • Meaningfulness: the degree to which the structure has an implicit meaning that tends to excite or inspire the drive to find new interpretations.
  • Emergence: the degree to which features of the structure are apparent.  In other words, the structure is not so abstract that you cannot “get your head around it.”
  • Incongruity: the degree to which the parts of structure don’t seem to fit with one another.  There is conflict or contrast among the elements of the form.
  • Divergence: the degree to which the structure offers multiple directions and interpretations.

A preinventive form with all these properties yields more quantity and quality of inventive ideas.  They also create the highest levels of anxiety.  A great preinventive form should assault ones senses and sensibilities.  When I teach this to people who have never experienced it, I notice their discomfort.  Their body language screams, “Get me out of here!”  They want to quickly dismiss it as a “bad idea” and move on to what they think is more fertile ground.  But just the opposite is true.  As I tell my students, when you feel a rush of conflict and craziness about  the preinventive form, you should declare victory!  You are in the perfect spot to invent something cool and useful.

Let’s look at an example of a preinventive form (also called The Virtual Product in the S.I.T. method).  In this example, from one of The LABs, we innovated a recruiting process.  We transformed it by removing key components (using the Subtraction Template).  Consider this: a recruiting process without any hiring.  How does this preinventive form rate in terms of the properties listed above?

  • Novelty:  high (I’ve never seen this before.)
  • Ambiguity:  medium  (This is somewhat obscure, but it could be even more so.)
  • Meaningfulness:  medium (This one might scare people a bit.)
  • Emergence:  high (We can “see” or imagine the features of this without much trouble.)
  • Incongruity:  high (The parts no longer seem to relate to one another.  Weird.)
  • Divergence:  low (Probably due to the narrowness of the process itself.)

Some people experience higher anxiety than others when dealing with preinventive forms.  The determinant is one’s NEED FOR CLOSURE.  This is defined as an individual’s desire for a firm solution as opposed to enduring ambiguity.  It can measured using an instrument called the Need For Closure Scale.  From Wikipedia:

“Individuals scoring high on need for closure are likely to quickly grasp closure by relying on early cues and the first answer they come across (Chirumbolo, et al., 2004). The need for closure is also said to lead to a very narrow information search and a higher tendency to use cognitive heuristics when it comes to finding a solution to a question (Van Hiel and Mervielde, 2003).”

“In studies on creativity, individuals rating low on need for closure produced a larger frequency of novel solutions that motivated and inspired others in their group. Low need for closure members were more productive and outcomes of projects were rated as more creative (Chriumbolo et al., 2004).”

Using the SOLUTION-TO-PROBLEM method of innovation, we are able to create preinventive forms that have all the right properties.  But it is how we deal with the anxiety they produce that will make or break our innovation efforts.  My advice:  take the Need For Closure assessment and understand where you  are on the scale.  If you have high need for closure, recognize and accept it.  But be sure to surround yourself with a team of diverse thinkers to help you minimize the impact.