Innovation: when ideas meet and mate

Great innovations often seem stunningly simple and obvious…after the fact. Innovation happens, according to Matt Ridley, “when ideas have sex.” But why don’t more interesting ideas find ways to attract each other and mate? Why is it so hard to see things through fresh eyes? In this post we look at the biology that constricts our ability to generate novel thought and the role of diversity as a key driver of innovation.

The brain is equipped with very limited ability to take in and process new information, and our environment always contains more than we can possibly attend to consciously. In the first few years of life, in fact, the brain’s main job is to sort through the overwhelming amount of sensory data bombarding us and to find recurring patterns. These patterns, encoded as neural networks, give us maps for navigating the specific environment and culture into which we’ve entered. We can then respond automatically when we detect the same conditions without using our precious conscious attention resources.

Think about the number of things you do without thinking, but which at one time you needed to learn. Shoes have a left and right foot and they should (for most of us anyway) match, as do socks. When it’s sunny, you don’t need a raincoat, but you may need one when it’s cloudy. Door handles operate in a particular way, and similarly shaped ones generally operate alike. We learn to sort through the environment selectively, paying attention to the details and patterns that are useful and disregarding inputs for which our brains have not found a use.

As the brain finds the patterns that will allow us function on autopilot, it organizes them into neural networks, grouping related concepts for efficient recall. You can see this phenomenon at work in a variety of psychological studies. If I give you a cue word, for example “dog,” your response times in finding related words like “leash” and “bone” in a word maze will be faster than it will be for unrelated words like “ocean” or “anchor.” For people whose keyword was “sailboat,” however, the result would be the reverse. We’ve all had the experience of getting a new car or learning a new word and suddenly seeing and hearing it everywhere. This phenomenon, called priming, reflects a warming of the neural circuits related to whatever is in the brain’s focus of attention, thus ensuring that we will notice related stimuli in our environment.

The trap here is that the brain becomes constrained to pay attention to that for which it already has a pattern. We become blind to things that exist in plain sight because our neural patterns are directing our attention elsewhere. In order to notice new things, we need to expose ourselves to thinking and cross connections that are not bound by our pre-existing networks. In other words, we need diversity.

Diversity takes many forms, from the commonly understood people diversity to diversity of experience and environment. Is your team, event or organization full of people like you? Do they come from the same race, gender, socio-economic, age group or educational background? Do they think like you do? Diversity of ideas is limited to the neural networks and experiences shared by those participating in the conversation.

Diversity of environment is an often overlooked dimension. The ideas available to us and the patterns that we create depend on the environmental inputs available. Are meetings always held in the same way and in the same location? Do people mix informally and share ideas? We live in a work culture which forces many of our most creative people into stultifying work environments where they spend their days in a repetitive haze of the same meetings, reports, and activities. Cost cutting measures dictate that team “retreats” are now held on site in the same meeting rooms used day in and day out. A conversation about a problem while walking on a sunny beach will generate different perspectives than one that takes place in a monotone generic meeting room. The thoughts present for us after walking down a street in Mumbai will be different than those generated after checking email for the umpteenth time at our desks.

Steve Jobs intentionally designed environmental diversity into the buildings at Apple. Prototyping and design rooms allow employees to explore ideas in a hands on environment. Even bathrooms are strategically located, leading employees to walk through an open atrium where chance encounters with others from outside their group are likely.

Diversity of experience is a third dimension. Do you and your employees have a rich variety of life experiences upon which to draw? Innovation (and great art) often happens at the cross section between seemingly unrelated concepts. The deeper the pool of life experience we have to draw upon, the greater the potential for novel cross connections. We often hire with a predefined idea of what job preparation should look like and view down time pursuits as a luxury, or worse, as time wasters. True innovation demands that we spend some portion of our time exposing ourselves to new ideas and experiences foreign to our pre-existing education and ways of being.

Diversity has a dark side, though. We are designed, in part, to feel safer with those who think and act like we do. It’s easier to collaborate with people with whom we have a great deal in common. Ancient programming from millennia of life on the African Savannah tells us to mistrust those who look or act differently than we do. As social animals, we are innately concerned with status and seek to connect ourselves with others who “fit in” socially. Often, however, the people with the most creative ideas aren’t the most socially adept or practiced at seduction! In fact, it may be the very lack of concern for fitting in socially that allows them to think so far outside the norm.

Research by Jamil Zaki, etal, shows the high degree to which we are designed to conform to the social opinions of our peers. So strong is this tendency that we instinctively filter our thoughts for social appropriateness and acceptance without ever being conscious that we’ve done so. It requires a high degree of trust and group safety for people to relax enough to let ideas flow without attempting to prejudge their value. Nature’s deck is stacked against rapid and continual innovation. If we truly want innovative cultures, we have to intentionally load the deck in our favor. It’s a tall order, but here are some starting points:

1. Promote diversity of experience. Hire for it. Encourage it.
2. Promote diversity in people. Hire for it.
3. Create diverse environments. Take walks. Have off-sites in non-traditional locations. Provide space for play and for informal interaction.
4. Don’t filter ideas prematurely
5. Make failure acceptable. Fail fast and learn.

While diversity gets a robust mix of ideas to the party, it clearly isn’t sufficient to have them mate. For that to occur, the people with ideas, as well as those with the ability to bring them to market, have to form trusting relationships and take risks together. In future posts, we’ll look at the conditions and skills necessary for trust and risk taking to flourish.


  1. What a terrific, concise, accessible, useful post! Thanks so very much. I intend to distribute this to many of my clients, to help them see their own patterns and what they may be missing out on!