As I mentioned in this post, one of my favorite ways to stay current is by listening to podcasts. One of my favorite podcasts is Freakonomics Radio, created by Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt. The podcast was created after their popular Freakonomics series books.

Earlier this year in episode 243, they tackled the topic of productivity. In this episode, they interviewed Charles Duhigg, author of The New York Times best seller The Power of Habit about his latest book Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in life and Business. The interview generated enough interest for me to put the latest book on my “to read” list.

Having recently become interested in design thinking and innovation, there were a few other books on the list before this one. I’m happy to say that Smarter Faster Better has finally made it into the queue and I’m currently near the end of that read. I was somewhat surprised to find a chapter on Innovation. I say surprised because I was expecting the book to lean more toward the productivity aspects mentioned in the subtitle. Duhigg uses several different examples in each chapter to illustrate the topics that he covers. Each of the chapters, eight of them, have a subtitle and the Innovation chapter’s subtitle is “How Idea Brokers and Creative Desperation Saved Disney’s Frozen.” Of course, with my new curiosity around innovation as a topic, I was interested to see where he would take the topic.

In this chapter, Duhigg talks about a biologist in the 1950s named Joseph Connell who traveled to the rain forests and coral reefs of Australia to investigate why some parts of the world seem to be more biologically diverse while other areas were so ecologically bland. He chose Australia for its great examples of diversity and homogeneity in close proximity. It seemed as if nature’s creative capacities depend on periodic disturbance, like a fallen tree or an occasional storm, that temporarily upset the natural environment. But the disturbances had to be the right size. In biology, it’s called the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, which holds that “local species diversity is maximized when ecological disturbances are neither too rare nor too frequent.”

He also noted the concept of “competitive exclusion,” that if there were no disturbances to the environment, the strongest species became so entrenched that nothing else could compete.

He went on to suggest that when strong ideas take root, they can sometimes crowd out competitors so thoroughly that alternatives can’t prosper. So sometimes the best way to spark creativity is by disturbing things just enough to let some light through.

Another point that Duhigg makes is that innovation becomes more likely when old ideas are mixed in new ways. He cites a study by two researchers who were looking for a way to evaluate the creativity of scientific research papers. One commonality among almost all of the creative papers was that they were usually combinations of previously known ideas mixed together in new ways. One of the researchers noted that many of those who are considered exceptionally creative are “essentially intellectual middlemen” who have learned to transfer knowledge between different industries or groups. They have generally seen many persons attack essentially the same problem in different settings so they know which kinds of ideas are more likely to work.

Duhigg notes that within sociology, these middlemen are often referred to as idea or innovation brokers. The odds of success increase when brokers — those with fresh perspectives, who have seen ideas in a variety of settings — draw on the diversity within their minds.

Sometimes a small disturbance (or change) can help jolt us out of the ruts that even the most creative thinkers fall into, as long as those shake-ups are the right size.

He went on to suggest three things that can help increase the productivity of your own creative process:

  1. Be sensitive to your own experiences. Pay attention to how things make you feel.
  2. Recognize that the panic and stress you feel as you try to create isn’t a sign that everything is falling apart. Rather, it’s the condition that helps make us flexible enough to seize something new.
  3. The relief accompanying a creative breakthrough, while sweet, can also blind us to seeing alternatives. It is critical to maintain some distance from what we create.

My takeaway from the Innovation chapter was that sometimes we should consider a small change, maybe to an existing team (or even our own thinking) to help push creativity and innovation to another level.

The book is worth a read, and by no means focuses only on innovation. Other chapters tackle Motivation, Teams, Focus, Goal Setting, Managing Others, Decision Making and Absorbing Data. You may actually want to start with the Appendix as it will help you see how the various chapters actually relate to productivity.


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