When we think about innovation, we tend to think of new ideas as the fuel that drives it, and ideas are certainly important. But I am convinced that they are in fact secondary, secondary to our ability to gain new insights and discover new ways to understand the world around us. Great innovators have cultivated a profound openness. They are open to questioning their assumptions and beliefs, open to considering other perspectives, open to systematically updating their own thinking. It is that openness that enables them to change their understanding of things and make the discoveries that produce new knowledge. Those insights then become the raw material for great new ideas.

This is part of a series of posts on newly published research into personal innovativeness, its impact and its attributes. My last post focused on the importance of awareness, how innovators make observations and gather information. This post is about what they do with that information.

Renowned psychologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl famously wrote,

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

When great innovators find themselves in that space—when they experience something, make observations or gather data—they strive to avoid falling into the same conventional patterns of thought. They look for new ways to interpret that data and respond to what they encounter.

For most of us, this requires considerable discipline. Our own mental inertia can be very difficult to overcome. If we are not careful, there is no gap at all between information and how we interpret that information. Our brains routinely attach meaning automatically, often producing an emotional response. It frequently takes conscious effort to create the space Frankl described. When we think conventionally, we move from one situation to another without even recognizing that space, much less stepping into it. We may fail to even realize that there are viable alternative explanations, much less actively consider them. One effect of this is to overvalue our own knowledge and expertise, reinforcing our beliefs rather than challenging them. When we are confronted by troubling facts or an opinion we disagree with, we push back and defend our position as “true” or “right” and dismiss other views as simply wrong. It is a mindset that makes us highly resistant to innovation. It can also make us difficult to get along with.

When we are not open, we are less likely to actively listen to others. Our thinking becomes more rigid. We lack empathy and insight. We become defensive and arrogant. As a result, problems are misunderstood, communication is ineffective and we fall into unnecessary conflict. The ideas and solutions that we generate are less relevant, less effective or just plain bad. These effects are so well known and so detrimental that almost no one will admit to being “closed-minded.” It is so socially unacceptable that most of us consider it an insult. However all too often, we deny and rationalize it away rather than taking active steps to overcome a tendency that we all have.

Innovation requires that we become proactively open in our thinking. Innovators are eager to see the world in new ways. They welcome alternative perspectives, even when that may contradict their current thinking. They are reflective, actively seeking out fresh interpretations and giving them their active consideration. Genuine openness makes us more coachable and accepting of feedback from others. We need to recognize that the best insights and ideas may not be our own. Cultivating those relationships and welcoming disagreements. Using that input to gain insights that create value. Keeping ourselves open to understanding how others may see things helps develop empathy for our customers and colleagues.

Team members who have this kind of openness are able to productively handle disagreement. So that rather than devolving into arguments and conflict, they productively challenge and refine everyone’s thinking. Their openness makes them more collaborative in how they pursue projects.

Openness enables us to effectively identify, explore and define problems. It helps us gain clarity about what we are trying to solve, what things we really need to address. So we create more robust solutions, and avoid solving the wrong problems.

Openness primes us to find new insights and make discoveries, and few things in business today are more valuable than a great new insight. Something your competitors have not figured out yet, or that your customers do not even realize about themselves. Those insights lead to breakthrough new products and services and business models. But to find them, we have to be open to revising our own thinking.

Innovation requires moving beyond what we already know, and that requires that we be imaginative and inventive in our interpretations, in how we make sense of things. In how, as Frankl put it, we choose to respond. That is what primes us to generate relevant and useful new ideas. In my next post, I’ll talk about the importance of being imaginative—in how we generate those new possibilities.