The key to breakthrough innovation

The key ingredient of breakthrough innovation is the ability to think laterally.

Society values specialist, vertical, analytical thinking far more than generalist, lateral, systems-type thinking.

Why is this? It's as a result of our focus on industrialisation and fascination with our ability to understand and control things that exist in closed systems. Lateral thinking relies heavily on creativity, imagination and curiosity - all things that are difficult to teach in a rigid school system and are difficult to measure.

As a result, lateral thinkers are often overlooked and unvalued.

However the key ingredient of breakthrough innovation that creates heightened levels of impact through the connecting of seemingly un-connectable ideas into radical new solutions is the ability to think laterally.

David Epstein illustrates this principal through the case of Japanese repairman Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi wasn’t a particularly gifted engineer, but he perceived his environment in a way that his more talented and specialized peers were not able to. Because they had specialized so much, these more traditionally talented engineers could only frame their environment in terms of the specific technologies they specialized in. Yokoi, on the other hand, saw how various older — and therefore overlooked — pieces of technology could work together. The result was the Nintendo Game Boy.

Academic research into how innovation is best created concluded that the best source of radical lateral thinking was a particularly gifted individual, but without such a 'superhero' a diverse teams is a close second.

This is interesting research because now more than ever companies and countries are searching for the elixir of how to create new value through innovation, yet efforts to unlock radical new value remain largely elusive.

With a better understanding of what the so-called 'recipe' might be, perhaps we will begin to value thinking that traditionally sits outside of conversional commercial reasoning.


Superman or the Fantastic Four? knowledge combination And experience in Innovative Teams | Academy of Management Journal
This study focuses on effects of knowledge and experience on both mean and variance measures of individual and team innovations. We propose that multiple knowledge domains produce novel combinations that increase the variance of product performance and that extensive experience produces outputs with…
The most undervalued problem-solving tool? Lateral thinking.
Lateral thinking is a way of approaching problems. It deliberately forgoes obvious approaches in favor of oblique or unexpected ones.
How Gunpei Yokoi Reinvented Nintendo
The future of a middling toy and gadget company was dreamed-up on its shop floor by an inspired printing engineer.