Beginners Mind: A Source of Innovation

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Beginners Mind and InnovationSome people approach each situation with a beginner’s mind, which is an attitude of openness and lack of preconceptions, even when they’re a highly accomplished professional. These people are more innovative than others, and you can facilitate this attitude in a team.

A great example of this comes from a team I work with that writes software to run the operations of a trucking company, which I’ll call “ABC Trucking”. We hired Gerald, a seasoned developer, about a year ago, and his first assignment was to provide our customers with an application to pull their shipment history from a data warehouse. You could say Gerald was an overachiever, because he decided to give customers access to not only the shipments ABC carries but also shipments handled by other trucking companies, our competitors. He had already worked out the integration into several other trucking company’s systems when some of ABC’s long-term developers found out about it. They were appalled and chastised him, “Why would you give customers visibility to the shipments handled by our competitors? We want them to use our company’s services!” Gerald shrugged his shoulders and answered simply, “Because it provides better service to our customers.” It turns out that Gerald was onto something. Customers were thrilled to be able to see all of their trucking shipments in one place, and they started thinking of ABC as a consolidator. This sparked the company to begin providing brokerage services, where they supply the interface between customers and all of their trucking providers. This is quickly becoming a very lucrative part of ABC’s business.

The long-term developers at ABC Trucking would probably never have come up with this idea. According to Psychology Today, their “latent inhibition”, a filtering mechanism in which familiar situations evoke routine responses, would prevent it. They have been working with customer shipments for so long that they automatically limit their thinking to internal shipments only. It took someone approaching it with a beginner’s mind, like Gerald, to consider including competitors’ shipments.

Some people have a beginner’s mind, even when they’ve been at the same job for many years. There was a study conducted by Shelley Carson at Harvard in 2005, which found among a sample of high I.Q. individuals that eminent creative achievers were seven times more likely to have reduced latent inhibition. These people naturally treated each situation with freshness and novelty, no matter how many times they’d seen it before. As a team leader, you can learn to recognize people with reduced latent inhibition, the ones who often have the most out-of-the-box ideas, and seed them on your teams.

You can also facilitate a beginner’s mind in any team, helping them reduce the effects of latent inhibition. It starts with decreasing the idea of “experts”. When you label someone as a “lead” or “senior” or some other title signifying that they know more than others, you take a step towards erasing beginner’s mind and creativity. It sets the expectation that those people are the experts and have the answers. They then set out to fulfill that expectation by providing answers based on their past experience, and the other team members become less inclined to offer their ideas. This leaves little room for new insights. When you help people let go of being an expert, they can listen to others with an open mind, which also creates greater space for the other voices to arise. You can also spark people to think about things differently by asking lots of “what if” questions and encouraging open expression of ideas.

Beginner’s mind doesn’t mean negating experience. It means keeping an open mind about how to apply experience to each new circumstance. Help people be open and mentally flexible while still learning from past successes and mistakes. You don’t have to promote either creativity or proven techniques. You can promote both.

As we learn more from neuroscience and psychology about the incredible power of our creative minds, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team dynamics to increase creativity and innovation, get a free download of Innovative by Design, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy, or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. Renee Houston  July 28, 2013

    Jackie, I’ve been in this exact circumstance over the past two years. I approach telecom with a different angle since it’s not truly the background from which I came. Because I don’t have a preconceived notion of how things should go, I try new ideas. Sometimes those new ideas open up opportunities and then they are deemed revolutionary.

    The idea of labeling people as “expert” is really dangerous. I hope I’m never labeled that term in anything, less I begin to think I don’t need to continue learning and trying new things. Keep up the amazing work that you are doing, it’s remarkable.

    Looking forward to working with you in the capacity of “gatherer of information.” Take care.



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