How to be innovative: Break the rules by following the rules

November 21, 2017 7:58 am

Scientific thinking is an antidote to ‘more of the same’.

A disciplined approach to innovation is core to the thinking of one of the most innovative leaders of our time – Elon Musk – according to Neil Strauss’s recent piece in Rolling Stone. Strauss highlights, among other things, that:

  • Musk’s ideas start with a question not an answer
  • He gathers data to increase understanding
  • He puts forward a theory based on the data instead of just opinion
  • Rather than look for confirmation that his ideas are right, he actively seeks disconfirming data – essentially asking people to try to ‘break’ his conclusion

alex-knight-199368These techniques are the foundation of science but are often missing in leadership.

Why does this matter?

Brain science has made it clear that human beings have a natural tendency to favour the status quo, become bound by what we know to be true and ‘like’ our own ideas way too much.

Only by countering these unconscious biases through a deliberate thinking process are we able to overcome our habits of ‘tinkering around the edges’ rather than inventing what we really need/desire.

Although counterintuitive, the rigour and rules associated with scientific thinking and experimentation increases our creativity and reduces the risk of restricting ourselves unnecessarily.

What can you do?

  1. Let your curiosity rule – ask questions and experiment
  2. Dig deeper – collect different types of data from many sources e.g. statistical, expert opinion and diverse perspectives before you theorise and especially before you reach conclusions
  3. Define what type of data would prove you wrong and try to find it
  4. Appoint a ‘devil’s advocate’ to counter and question your conclusions

The leaderships teams we coach, who use these techniques consistently are not only more innovative but also reduce their risk of missing vital signals that they are on the wrong path.

Do a quick assessment of your next team meeting. What is the ratio of questions to statements? How do you ensure you are collecting a broad base of data? And most importantly ask yourselves: how do you ensure you have the opportunity to be proven wrong!


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Dr Connie Henson, author of BrainWise Leadership, designs change leadership programs informed by the latest neuroscience research through her company Learning Quest. For information visit  Follow on twitter @LearningQuest

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