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Innovation Workshop on Think Bigger: How to Actually Think Out of the Box

Innovation is the key to driving success forward. How can we achieve something new if we don’t try a new solution, a new approach, or have a new perspective? Innovation creates opportunities for something new and without innovation, we become stagnant.

Sheena Iyengar, the keynote speaker from NetElixir’s Connecting the Dots virtual summit in August, spoke on the principles and methodology of innovation. Currently an S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia University, Sheena Iyengar is a two-time TED mainstage speaker, 2011 Thinkers50 recipient, and a leading expert on choice and the art of choosing.  

To get us thinking about innovation, Iyengar began her presentation with an anecdote on the creation of the Statue of Liberty.

Innovation Equation
In order of appearance: Nubian statues that guarded Egyptian tombs + Jules Joseph Lefebvre’s painting of La Verite +Roman coins depicting the goddess Libertas + Bartholdis mother

 Lady Liberty, designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, is an amalgamation of various elements Bartholdi came across in his travels. He was fascinated by the Nubian statues that guarded Egyptian tombs – giving Lady Liberty her size; Jules Joseph Lefebvre’s painting of La Verite – note his subject is the truth, not liberty, but the woman is in a pose similar to Lady Liberty’s; the resurfacing in France of Roman coins that feature the face of the goddess Libertas – these coins inspired Bartholdi to depict liberty as the subject; and Bartholdi used his own mother – his mother’s face became the statue’s face.

Professor Iyengar deconstructed the elements of the Statue of Liberty to track the train of innovating thought Bartholdi had in creating the statue; however, Lady Liberty is more than the sum of her parts. She is an evolution of inspiration and innovation, coming together in pieces to be the masterpiece we know today.

Think Bigger is about how we come up with some of the greatest ideas of all time. It is about exposing the principles of innovation, in that creators steal pieces from all over to combine them together to create something new – to create a whole that is far greater than the sum of its pieces. 

“Innovation is new combinations of old ideas.” -Joseph Schumpeter

The Process of Innovating to Think Bigger

Think Bigger is not randomly lightning on the next big idea. Think Bigger is about deliberately going beyond the box of one’s specific job or industry to see what else is out there and bringing those elements together in a new perspective and combination to tackle the problem at hand. Innovations are made up of past successful and useful pieces. 

The core technique to think bigger is through a process Professor Iyengar coined as choice mapping. Choice mapping consists of the following three steps:

  1. Breaking down the problem
  2. Prioritizing past success(es)
  3. Searching in and out of domain

One of the most important aspects of innovating is spending the time to break down the problem. By spending the energy to simplify one big problem into multiple subproblems, one can more easily look for solutions to those subproblems and then work their way up to tackling the bigger problem. Phrase your problem into a positive question so that you are excited to solve it. 

While we can learn from failures, we learn more from successes. One can fail in multiple ways, but success often takes one form. Analyzing the route to that success can reveal multiple, useful pieces that can be applied to problems down the road. Innovation does rely on trial and error in order to gain expertise through repetition and continued exposure. 

Searching in and out of domain is key to innovation, as just drawing from past success in one field will lead to copycats and no real difference. Drawing on prior successes across industries and domains – and across successes big and small – will lead to creative inspiration for the best solution moving forward.

Choice mapping is not brainstorming. Brainstorming, as Professor Iyengar explains, is just throwing up ideas, hoping one will stick. Brainstorming is usually down in groups, as well, which leads more to group thought than productive ideas from individuals. Choice mapping is about deliberate thought, about consciously thinking about the problem, about analyzing pieces and materials to use for new choices, and about creating something useful. Our brains are already wired to connect things, so choice mapping is a more transparent and cautious way to deliberately combine different elements to create something inspirational and novel.

“Invention consists in avoiding the constructing of useless combinations and in constructing the useful combinations which are in infinite minority.” -Henri Poincaré