Kelman: Challenges to conventional thinking can prompt novel ideas

A new book makes the connection between iconoclasts and innovation

Imagine for a moment — before you continue reading this column — a sun setting over a beach. If you are like most people, you imagined the sun setting peacefully over shimmering blue water, with the beach empty and bereft of activity.

Why is that?

Such an image is what we have seen most frequently on postcards and in films so it is what most easily comes to mind, according to Emory University professor Gregory Berns in “Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently.”

If you thought of something different, such as a beach filled with sunbathers or a couple strolling hand-in-hand at the water’s edge, you might be an iconoclast — someone who thinks differently and comes up with novel ideas. Berns’ book is devoted to how iconoclasts are different and how individuals can cultivate the ability to be successful iconoclasts.

The most interesting part of the book is Berns’ exploration of how iconoclasts perceive the world differently. Seeing is a physical phenomenon, while perception is the interpretation of what we see.

To economize on energy, the mind normally takes the path of least resistance — it perceives based on experience. That makes it hard to look at something in a new way, which is required for innovation.

Innovators come up with insights by perceiving things in new and unfamiliar ways. Walt Disney once saw a still cartoon projected on a movie screen, which seeded the idea of animated cartoons as entertainment. Therefore, Berns suggests, it is no surprise that innovators often get their best ideas while in unfamiliar environments.

Although perceiving something new requires unfamiliarity, selling the idea to others often requires the opposite: making the innovation seem familiar and not risky.

Berns argues that unfamiliar objects trigger the fight-or-flight response. For example, Jonas Salk’s approach to the polio vaccine was novel, but getting a shot at the doctor’s office was a common experience. The public’s comfort with getting injections made it easy for them to accept the new polio vaccine.

Harvard Business School Press published Berns’ book, and it makes sense to pitch such a book to people in business. Companies need at least some iconoclasts to be the source for new ideas and new approaches if firms are to survive in a changing world.

In government, the need for innovators is not as self-evident. As Berns notes, in government, we often discourage innovation by pillorying even well-intentioned failure in the name of accountability. Yet government performance shortfalls are even more dramatic than those in business, which means we need iconoclasts in government as well.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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