Iterate. Iterate. Iterate. (I know. That’s redundant.) We hear it all the time these days, when folks talk about personal innovation: You have to iterate. Iterate product designs. Iterate marketing messages. Iterate business models. Systematic trial and error is embedded in all sorts of innovation processes. It’s a way to test ideas and gather feedback in order to refine those ideas and develop new ones, an endless cycle in pursuit of improvements and breakthroughs. It’s getting our hands dirty and learning from experience because testing against reality is the ultimate way to answer the myriad of questions that innovator’s face.

When done well, this iteration is not just about improving products and services and customer intelligence and profitability—as important as those things are. It’s about improving our thinking. What most distinguishes highly successful innovators from those who struggle, is their skill at systematically revising their own mental models—at iterating what’s happening inside their heads.

This is not a single mental faculty like divergent thinking or memory or language. It’s a combination of mental capabilities working in concert, and it includes what I call the four “I”s: Intuition, Impact, Information and Insight.

1)      Developing Intuition

This is coming up with fresh ideas, generating new possibilities for ourselves, options that extend beyond what we already know.

2)      Creating Impact

This is a willingness to take action despite our uncertainties. It’s exploring and experimenting, to test our hunches and intuitions.

3)      Gathering Information

This is making disciplined observations. It’s carefully noting what’s happening around us—especially as a result of our own actions, looking for exceptions and surprises that might point us in new directions.

4)      Gaining Insight

This is about making discoveries. It’s considering a variety of ways to interpret what we observe, and being slow to settle on any one explanation as we carefully interpret the data and make sense of our experience.

We’ve spent years developing tools to measure and cultivate these specific mental faculties, and we’ve found that each of them really comes down to a choice.

1)      When we need ideas, do we choose to rely primarily on our existing knowledge or pursue what we can imagine?

2)      When we decide to take action on our ideas, do we choose to apply what we’re already convinced will work, or are we willing to explore uncertain new possibilities?

3)      When we observe the consequences of our actions, do we choose to look for confirmation that we’ve chosen the right path, or are we looking for exceptions and surprises that might point us in new directions?

4)      When we interpret what we observe, do we choose to seek reinforcement of our existing beliefs, or are we trying to discover new ways of seeing things?

Iteration is not a single event, but rather a cycle—an innovation cycle— that moves through this sequence. One set of choices takes us from what we already know, to what we’re already confident will work, to what we expect to have happen, to assuming we already know what it means. In other words, it maintains the status quo and it’s exactly the kind of mental inertia that innovators must overcome.

The other set of choices takes us from developing novel possibilities to exploring those possibilities, to looking for exceptions and surprises, to seeking to discover new insights. In other words, it enables us to innovate. Each lap around the cycle produces new ideas and impacts and information and insights.

That first pattern, which I call a Knowledge Loop, does not iterate, but rather maintains stability. The second pattern, which I call an Insight Loop, is the one that iterates. We know from our research that each of these patterns is self-reinforcing. Each choice we make in favor of the Knowledge Loop increases the likelihood that we will continue to make choices in that direction. Each choice we make in favor of the Insight Loop increases the likelihood that we will continue to make choices in that direction. So, most of us get sucked into one pattern or the other.

Those tendencies can be measured. Yet they remain choices, something that we can change if we want it to. That means that understanding and recognizing these choices enables us to self-adjust, to be more iterative in our thinking, to become more innovative.

So with the right feedback, we can enable anyone (or any team or organization) to enhance their capacity to innovate—simply by making different choices, and we routinely see folks make exactly those sorts of shifts.