Learn to Be Innovative: Interview with Roberta Ness, Author of “Innovation Generation”



Whether you are a student or an established scientist, researcher, or engineer, you can learn to be more innovative.

In her book  “Innovation Generation. How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas” (Oxford University Press 2012), internationally renowned physician and scientist Roberta Ness provides all the tools you need to cast aside your habitual ways of navigating the every-day world and to think "outside the box." Based on an extraordinarily successful program at the University of Texas, this book provides proven techniques to expand your ability to generate original ideas. These tools include analogy, expanding assumptions, pulling questions apart, changing your point of view, reversing your thinking, and getting the most out of multidisciplinary groups, to name a few. Woven into the discussion are engaging stories of famous scientists who found fresh paths to innovation, including groundbreaking primate scientist Jane Goodall, father of lead research Herb Needleman, and physician Ignaz Semmelweis, whose discovery of infection control saved millions. Finally, the book shows how to combine your newly acquired skills in innovative thinking with the normal process of scientific thinking, so that your new abilities are more than playthings. Innovation will power your science.

Milena Z. Fisher (The Creativity Post) asked Professor Roberta Ness few aditional questions:

Professor Ness, your book “Innovation Generation”  is one of the best books on innovation I've ever read, it provides a very comprehensive outlook for the subject of Innovation in scientific environment but it is also full of practical remarks.

Yes, that was my hope.  The book is based on my training method.  We have been using this approach in the classroom successfully for 3 years now, and I have to tell you -  it is wildly successful in how well it works.

What was the basic motivation behind writing this book?

In science we talk all the time about how innovation in science is an absolute sine qua non, a driver for progress and yet, remarkably, we don’t teach anybody how to think innovatively. If we expect somebody to be a mathematician we impart the skills needed for thinking mathematically; we give scientists the tools for thinking critically.  Yet for innovation – that most central feature for discovery in science - we don’t teach any methods.  My hope is that anybody who has any scientific aspiration whether it is students or practitioners, or just people who have an interest in the subject will read this book and will be able to transform  the way they think. Using the Innovation Generation method literally changes the way you think. 

Is “innovative thinking” a teachable skill?

The Innovation Generation method is something that people can embrace and immediately apply. There is a workbook which will be coming out within a year - it is in production at the moment – and it provides a lot of exercises for practicing this method. But the fundamental construct of “Innovation Generation” is something that “makes sense” and can affect many aspects of your life.  The method raises your ability to identify the frames that are fundamental to your thinking.  Frames are so central to your thought processes that they are the “air around you”.  They fill the room but you cannot see and recognize them.  Identifying them is not easy, not something that any of us normally do.  My method helps to identify frames, and  to purposefully alter them in order to “think outside the box”.  To do this, the reader gets a toolbox including: analogy, reversal, expansion, dissection...and more tools described in detail in my book.  Fundamentally it is all about using the tools to be able to frame-shift.

A lot of authors in the past talked about frame shifting, including Thomas Kuhn and Edward de Bono...but none of them explained how to do it: they just said, “Oh, just shift the frame...”  Well, that’s really easily said and really very difficult to do.  Let me give you an example:  I’m working on a new book about creating an environment for maximally supporting innovation. Well, to think this through I had to identify: “what are the frames we currently use?”  I went to the mission statements of the great science funders NIH, NSF and looked closely at their metaphors so as to identify underlining frames.  One (persistently) underlining frame is the idea of science as linear steps forward. The metaphors are “progress”, “advance”, “furtherance”, all of which represent this linear frame.  The problem is that creativity is meandering and tortuous.  It is taking the time to look at everything around you and to really think about it; and it involves failure. So, this frame of “science as linear movement” is really anti-innovative. Things that do not contribute to immediate progress make us uncomfortable.

What do you think about “open science movement” - it this a valuable, alternative model for conveying research in science?

There are some really exciting models that have been tried, but I think that to date the vast majority of science has not been touched by an open model. My own view is that a social- networking web-based pooling of expertise is a thing of the future.  Such web-based interactions would allow scientists to “purposely play together” with potentially dramatic, transformational effects. Unfortunately, the infrastructure, the system of incentives, and the organization of science currently does not support open science.  We need to reinvent and re-envision the organizational structure in such a way that we create a “parallel universe” that values free cooperation between scientists.  It would take changing the metrics for valuing non-ownership contributions.  It would take changing the centrality of single-person independence in funding, authorship, and rankings.  We would have to change everything from the way we determine promotion and tenure to the way we allocate resources.  Our organizational structures in science haven't changed for 150 - 160 years, in education for 600 years. This is a moment of reckoning. 

 In your book you stress the value of cooperation, what do you think about recently, very widely discussed notion of  “Groupthink”.

I think that there are a few misconceptions in the way we approach the whole issue. The central issue is: the initial ideas typically come from one person, however often times people do not have the push to necessarily sit down and come up with those ideas, sometimes they do, because they are intrinsically motivated but most of the times they don’t.  Brainstorming has two functions: one, it provides a motivation and a purposeful time and place to start thinking through a problem. Two although each idea comes from one individual, the elaboration and vetting of them can be successful in a group. “Groupthink” is a real thing, there is no question about it, you put people in the same room and they all kind of agree with each other because that is the social bias, and I talk about it in my book. But when you add the web into the mix everything seems to change: the anonymity is intact, but you still create time and space to work on the problem. Groups can be very powerful but I think that we have to be realistic about what the benefits are: group helps not so much with the initiation, but with elaboration of ideas.

Does method described in your book work for everybody?

My book is a toolbox. Some people like using certain tools, and consider others to be less handy, some people might say. “oh, this one really works for me , but I’m not ecstatic about using the other tool, or...that tool doesn’t work for that job, but works great for a different job.” I use accessible language to describe my method so that everyone can understand the Innovation Generation toolbox. In there are plenty of options so that everyone will find something that works for them.

"Innovation Generation. How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas", (Hardcover) by Roberta B. Ness is now available at Oxford University Press.

TEDxHouston 2011 - Roberta B. Ness, M.D., M.P.H.

Tags: creative thinking, frame-braking, groupthink, innovation, open science, paradigm shifting, science

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