Batterii spoke with Aline Wolff, Ph.D., an Associate Professor at the Stern School of Business, NYU. Wolff teaches courses in innovative thinking and organizational communication for business at NYU. With a background at companies including Citibank, Goldman Sachs, and IBM, her research focus is on experiential learning and the intersection of innovative thinking and neuroscience. 

Wolff has been recognized by FEI as one of the “Women to Watch in 2015,” solidifying her as one of 30 women celebrated for their work in leading and advocating innovation.

Wolff suggests 3 exercises to improve your ability to think innovatively and to increase your chances of finding breakthrough ideas.

1. Start with Metaphors

Metaphors are one of the most basic building blocks as to how we naturally think. “Metaphors are just hugely important in thinking innovatively,” explains Wolff. An easy-to-do exercise demonstrates the power of metaphor, and can foster confidence in those looking to find their innovation sweet spot.

Wolff says she gives people photos of two very different objects.

One example she’s used: red stiletto heels shoes and an octopus.

Wolff asks the innovators to see what the two images have in common. Then she asks them what makes them different. Innovators are then challenged to come up with a product that could be sold based on those two things.

This “mash-up” exercise gets people immediately engaged, and it’s the polarization that actually accelerates their ability to focus on the task at hand. “They will end up coming up with a better and stronger ideas than if they hadn’t started with a contradictory setup,” Wolff explains. 

2. “Think With Your Fingers” to Collaborate & Cooperate at a Very High Level

“Thinking with your fingers” is an informal way of approaching rapid prototyping.

“I ask people to use very basic materials, extremely basic actually,” explains Wolff. At this year’s FEI conference, Wolff’s workshop with innovation leaders used minimal materials such as construction paper, clay to use for glue, and a straight edge ruler to cut paper.

“The point is to try and explore the material that you're using.” By encouraging people to experiment and see what it’s like to prototype with disposable materials in particular, people are likely to become much more comfortable with the idea of creating something that can be thrown away. “You can just tear it up, start over, and reuse it,” explains Wolff.

The practice is powerful in creating an environment where there is no penalty involved. Instead of fear of failure or doubt, the exercise can be lighthearted, and individuals can get a sense of the fast pace that comes with prototyping—a pace they might not be comfortable with at first. 

The process of making quick decisions and building just as quickly lets people see ideas in a whole new way.

“The actual building [of a concept or idea] takes [innovators] to a different place, where they look at the idea from a different perspective.” Whether the end-result is the presentation of an idea, or a verbalization of a concept, building the idea can help individuals better articulate and consolidate their ideas into more persuasive ones.

Because we have learned over the years to think in ways that emphasize rational, linear thought processes, this exercise presents the challenge of thinking, if possible, with considerably less emphasis on verbal and linear thinking.

“It’s not so much ‘starting small,’ as some may say, as starting without penalty,” Wolff says about the approach. Another benefit: the process draws upon the group intelligence. “It’s not just ‘me and my idea,’ but the process is about ‘us and our idea,’ which makes it accessible in a very different way.”

For design or UX teams, the collaboration practice of rapid prototyping is often already integrated into how they work, but for others, it’s a whole new way of thinking and doing.

For those who are used to a company culture with rigid planning procedures or more formal build-outs, the natural inclination is to resist. Some won’t enjoy the exercise itself. “Others won’t trust the process—one that sometimes requires individuals to give up a sense of logical or rational thinking,” explains Wolff.

The reality is, this resistance comes from years of established ways of thinking. “You form these neural pathways sometimes from a very early age, and they are continually reinforced in the brain. If you want to try and move people away from those, and establish a different type of neural pathway, you have to make it easy for them, otherwise it's not going to happen,” explains Wolff, who researches the relationship between neural pathways and innovative thinking.

To go beyond these deep-seated ways of thinking, we have to give our brains time to search, capture, digest and synthesize some of our inputs and ideas. In a very simplified explanation, science suggests we must give ourselves time to integrate the wealth of information coming in.

“If you're being asked to solve a problem in a very different way, you need a little bit of time for those new neural pathways to form.” 

For many companies, there can be a balance between previous ways of approaching problems (possibly emphasizing the analytical side) and a newer way of originality and rapid experimentation. 

Wolff reminds us that design thinking is powerful because it allows for raw information, random ideas, hunches and insights to make their way through funnels, and be narrowed down, until something is valuable, and truly workable. Citing the work of Roger Martin and his “knowledge funnel,” Wolff says that when ideas are able to be funneled in this way, “that’s where you will make your innovative ideas more powerful, and more realistic.”

3. Use the Power of “What If?”

Another tendency Wolff sees is for innovators, especially those coming from a productivity-driven environment, is to approach problem solving with the mindset of, “Here’s the problem and here’s the solution.” 

“That works really well in many cases. But it eliminates all of those other options that you have between a problem, and potential solutions.” If you have learned to come up with an answer—and then immediately move on to the next problem to solve— you should get the chance to step back and say, “What if that wasn’t the answer? What if there are other answers?”

What if we really looked at a whole range of different possible answers when we look at a problem? “What if you had five answers instead of one answer, and then you debated the strong and the weak points of each?" says Wolff. If we, as individuals and teams, can actually get into the habit of saying, “What if there were better solutions?” we could come up with many valuable, new-to-the-world answers.

While these exercises may seem deceptively simple, they can help overcome some of the biological and natural tendencies that hold us back from meaningful breakthroughs, and they provide avenues to help people gain more confidence in their ability to innovate. 

Is it possible, then, to plan ways to boost our ability to think innovatively?

The answer is yes. “The more you practice innovative thinking, the better you become at it,” says Wolff.

Aline Wolff is a Clinical Associate Professor of Management Communication at New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business. She teaches courses in innovative thinking for business, as well as business, management and organizational communication. Her primary research areas include innovative thinking for business, neuroscience and learning for the millennial generation, and experiential learning for business. Before joining NYU Stern, she worked on Wall Street, at Citibank and Goldman Sachs, as well as IBM.

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Batterii is a platform designed to help cross-functional teams collaborate through the front end of the design process. The Batterii Team is made up of designers, user experience experts and developers all working to deliver a product that is used by industry leaders in CPG, Pharma, Automotive and Apparel.