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Oct 27
Innovation #2

Previously we looked at the two primary types of innovation​, disruptive innovation and incremental innovation. But to do either requires us to be able to change our thinking, and the easiest way to do that is to understand how our brain works and how to take advantage of that.

Brain 101

To answer that, we need to know how the brain works. The good news here is that you are smarter than you think. At a very simple level the brain has two primary operating systems, both running in parallel, but only one getting our attention at any one moment:

  • A linear thinking, rational, step-by-step mode
  • And a pattern matching, parallel processing mode


Most of us spend the majority of our time in the linear mode. As you are reading this, you are using the linear mode. As you use computers to process emails and prepare documents or even as I write this, it is all linear mode. When we are problem solving, it is primarily linear mode. So here is the kicker. The linear mode at most uses 10% of our grey matter. The other 90% is used by the other mode and the autonomous functions (breathing and checking for danger). So the most creative and intelligent capabilities you have might not be where you think they are!

For innovation, we want to engage the pattern-matching part of the brain as much as possible. Here is a really good example of why.

For innovation, truth can seem stranger than fiction

Elias Howe was an inventor. He wanted to invent the first automated sewing machine. He had worked for months not achieving that, even though he had other inventions he had succeeded at. After a particularly frustrating day in 1845, he went to sleep and had a nightmare. In the dream, people were thrusting spears into him. The spears had holes in the tips. He awoke with a great sense of panic but then realising it was a dream, started to analyse it. He noticed that the spears that had holes in the tips reminded him of the sewing needles he had been trying to automate the use of, but the holes were in the wrong spot. A sewing needle handled by a person has a sharp point at one end, a thin shaft, and a hole at the top where the thread is pulled through the cloth. He realised that the version in the dream with the hole near the point, would be able to be automated to create a lock stich sewing machine. Problem solved. His pattern matching brain had communicated the solution he already had worked out to his linear mode using the dream. Who knows how long that answer had been sitting there?​

needle 1.png     


 needle 2.png

That is an extreme case but it makes the point I wanted to make. Sometimes, you already have the breakthrough worked out. But it is in the other part of your brain. So how do you get at it?

In order to get to that other half, there are some strategies that are known to work quite well. All of them fall into the category of a 'pattern interrupts'. There is a reason the most financially strong innovative companies have weird spaces in their buildings. These are ready sources of pattern interrupts. A short list of popular ways to achieve this includes:

  • Music (not songs but instrumental music itself – lyrics tend to pull us back to linear mode)
  • Humour – yes, even dad jokes
  • Go to a different part of the building, especially if it is very different and not noisy
  • Indoor atriums work really well, but most of us don't have one of those
  • Go outside and take a stroll, especially through picturesque surroundings
  • Do something tactile

Here is an example from a different discipline. Henri Poincare was a mathematician. When he was stumped with a problem, Henri wrote everything he knew on paper and went for a walk, returning when he had the answer.

I also give presentations on this topic to the Monash University Executive MBA program. It has been suggested by some students that I am giving my employees carte blanche to slack off. But I use this myself. Just last week I was struggling to solve a logic problem with a change in how a program needed to operate. So I went to our office thinking space and just sat there for five minutes. And I got the idea I needed. I went back and completed the software design and coding and we shipped it to our customer after testing the next day. Magic or process?

And yes, we do have a specific area set up as a thinking space with lots of pattern break objects, textures and appearances.


Ray Keefe

Successful Endeavours


Successful Endeavours specialise in Electronics Design and Embedded Software Development, focusing on products that are intended to be Made In Australia. Ray Keefe has developed market leading electronics products in Australia for more than 30 years.

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