Are we talking about Innovation all wrong?

November 12, 2018

The danger of overlooking psychological creativity


What do you think of when you hear the word Innovation? Take a moment.


What does it feel like? What does it look like?


Is it impressive? Big? Shiny?


Does it look like this?


Chances are you have a vegetable peeler just like this in your home. It’s also likely that you’ve never given it more than a passing thought. The endearing story of this very peeler features in Objectified, where the designer explains how his wife with arthritis hurt her hand whilst peeling potatoes. That designer set about designing iteration after iteration to ensure the future hands of vegetable aficionado’s could peel in ergonomic comfort.



When you walk into many companies today, the walls of innovation labs are adorned with ‘carpe diems’ and big hairy audacious goals. A grand agenda for innovation encourages employees to face the future of work head on by designing disruptive, groundbreaking innovations. Accordingly, they tell stories of new technologies in space flight, of diabetes detecting contact lenses and breakthroughs in AI.


Don’t get me wrong, these stories have their use, but what of the humble peeler?


The problem with big, hairy audacious goals


A big challenge of today's organisations is not to inspire innovation in the comfortable creators, those who dabbled in art classes at uni, create content for their youtube channel on days off or hustle a startup on the side. The challenge is how to inspire an innovative mindset in those who feel uncomfortable, for those who do not self identify as creative or innovative.   


As such, shining a spotlight on the big, groundbreaking innovations, and failing to celebrate the small ones can have three unintended effects:


  1. Those who don’t identify as an Elon Musk can feel dejected, even like an imposter in the innovation spaces.

  2. Suddenly just getting started can feel a whole lot harder. When we make innovation into a BIG thing, it’s hard to fit into our routine, and easier to procrastinate.

  3. Smaller ideas that have huge potential, can be discarded too soon ‘Go big or go home’


The importance of little innovation


Researchers of creativity and innovation often draw a distinction between what is termed ‘Big Creativity’ (revolutionary breakthroughs)and ‘Little Creativity’ (smaller, everyday acts of creativity). A similar concept is the definition of Psychological creativity and Historical creativity.


Psychological creativity refers to something new you do, that you’ve never done or seen before. Historical creativity refers to something new you do, that is not only new to you, but is also new to the world. The important distinction here is that personal creativity, always precedes historical creativity.


Scientist Margaret Boden claims that historical creativity may be more glamorous, but psychological creativity is more fundamental. So the real question is, if these little versions of creativity are so fundamentally important, why are they often overlooked and undervalued?


Motion to worship little innovation


If you really want historical creativity, you need to consistently reinforce and practice the foundations of psychological creativity. As some starters:


  • Before a brainstorm, take turns pointing out small innovations, then as a group point to it and say ‘woooooow’* (“Hey look, a whiteboard” “woooooooooow”)

  • Swap out a hackathon for a mini-thon, only little innovations allowed

  • Celebrate the little innovations, as much as you do the big ones.  Little achiever awards anyone?


Ultimately, being innovative is not a quality reserved solely for creative geniuses, however it can sometimes feel that way when so many of our stories focus on historical acts of innovation. It’s easy to forget that humans are natural problem solvers, our brains are wired to combine information in new ways and we’re creative in so many different ways; every. damn. day. So let the peeler be a reminder. And the button. And the door hinge.


Little innovation is all around you. You just need to know where to look.


*adapted from our friends at IDEO


 Annabel Blake


In a previous life Annabel was a snow creature,  who exited the competitive ski circuit to pursue psychology. She’s found a new, warmer home in the intersection between behavioural research and design strategy.




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©2018 by Science of Innovation Lab.