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Welcome to Oat Foundry’s Institutional Innovation Knowledge Department. Below, you will find a short introduction to how we think about innovation. In “Part 2” (working title) we will layout a map of concepts and build a vocabulary so we can effectively discuss innovation and its many facets. That map will be a jumping-off point to explore an interdependent web of concepts, each concept with practical exercises for applying them to this world of thought we call innovation.

Intro to Innovation

Let’s acknowledge innovation is hard. Really hard. If you’re a product of a US education system, the cards are stacked against you. Dr. George Land discovered this when he gave kindergarteners a creativity test designed for NASA employees. Spoiler: 98% of kindergarteners are “geniuses” according to his test. Adults? 2% Two MEASLY percent. To quote the good doctor, “What we have concluded is that non-creative behavior is learned.”

I know; it sure sounds bad. But don’t despair. The creativity that was stolen from us as children can be taught, or rather, un-un-taught. It won’t be easy; we’ll need to undo years (our formative years, no less) of educational maltreatment.

So where our education system go wrong?

Innovative thinking leads to building cool stuff.

Thought and Anti-thought

Many scientists (including Dr. Land) theorize there are two kinds of thinking: convergent and divergent. When we think convergently, we start with a premise and take steps to find a single solution. When we think divergently, we start with a premise and explore the vast universe of available solutions, considering each one without judgment or analysis.

As you can guess, our education system loves teaching (and testing) convergent problem solving because determining “intelligence” is a simple matter of programming a computer to interpret “right” and “wrong”. Because of this, we’ve wound up with a bias toward working and thinking convergently when confronted with any kind of problem.

Convergent vs Divergent Thinking

After learning about Dr. Land’s study from the opening, one may ask: if kindergarteners are so creative, why aren’t they driving Innovation efforts at Apple, Nike, and Campbell’s Soup?

While kindergarteners come up with wildly creative ideas, they haven’t yet been equipped to realize those ideas. This brings us to the heart of the matter: innovation, at its core, is the marriage of convergent and divergent thinking, a joining of wild creativity and ole’ fashioned execution. And it is at this juncture, the meeting of these two kinds of thinking, where our education system went completely off the rails.

In those rare, glorious moments when our teachers gave us an opportunity to create, to explore, and to think divergently, it was inevitably accompanied by instructions to think critically, to analyze, and to judge. This approach results in thinking divergently and convergently simultaneously.

What’s wrong with that? It amounts to cognitive task switching. While we think we’re doing one thing (brainstorming), we are spending our time in between tasks, constantly bouncing back and forth between an exploration of the solution space and critical judgment of ideas. This also explains why kindergarteners are creative geniuses; they have no one (especially not themselves) to tell them their ideas are shit.


If you want new ideas, separate convergent and divergent thinking. These mental processes annihilate each other if done simultaneously (or, at least, in rapid succession), but complement each other if given temporal breathing room.

How to think creatively

When in a group:

-When you brainstorm with a team, enforce a hard rule of “Do not criticize ideas”. It’s helpful to write this down somewhere in the room. Also, be gentle when you shut down the criticisms; you don’t want the offender to stop participating at all. A good reminder can be something like: “Hey Jim, thanks for the thought, but we’re looking for new ideas right now. We can discuss the feasibility of these ideas later”.
-To ensure the silence of those who still can’t help but criticize, try a silent brainstorming session like Brainwriting or MMOMM(Massively Multiplayer Online Mind Mapping)

When on your own:

-Count ideas and set a quota. See the “30 uses for a brick” exercise.
-Use Mind Maps to follow the cognitive leaps your brain makes when confronted with problems. See Tony’s video on mind mapping.
-When you sketch ideas, never erase. Keep the doodle going, even if your sketches wind up looking like the scribbled ravings of a madman.

John Halko

John is Oat Foundry’s Director of Innovation – tasked with systematically challenging the status quo.

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John Halko