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The Surprising Psychology of Innovation

It's less about creativity and problem solving than you may think.

Key points

  • Traits such as creativity and divergent thinking are necessary but insufficient to produce game-changing innovations.
  • Innovations require people to change behaviors, so an ability to motivate behavior change is needed along with traits such as creativity.
  • Nurturing informal relationships founded on trust encourages people in those relationships to risk adopting radical new ways of doing things.
  • Thus, a good way for innovators to make game changing ideas succeed is to foster loose, informal social networks.

Innovators who bring game-changers into the world, such as smartphones, electric cars, or the mRNA vaccines that are currently helping end the COVID pandemic are justifiably viewed as creative, out-of-the box thinkers who excel at solving hard problems.

Historically research into what makes individuals unusually creative or good at problem solving has been the province of personality psychology, such as MacKinnon's classic studies of creativity in architects (more creative people tend to prefer asymmetry in art than symmetry, for example) or Cognitive psychology (Guilford's pioneering psychometric studies of traits associated with creativity, such as divergent problem solving where there is no single, pre-set solution).

However, while innovators who change the world often exhibit personality traits such as high levels of motivation, non-conformity, and comfort with ambiguity, a recent study of innovation, conducted by myself and my wife, Chris Gilbert MD Ph.D., points to another key trait of big time-innovators: relationship building.

In our new book, Riding the Monster: Five ways to innovate inside bureaucracies, she and I tell the stories of five innovators, who, despite toiling in monster bureaucracies in Government, industry and academia, helped bring killer new ideas to the world in fields as diverse as countering roadside bombs, augmented reality and ---no story of innovation would be complete without it...the Internet itself.

Taken together, the five innovation success stories showed that out-of-the box thinking, hard work, divergent thinking, non-conformity, and other traits associated with creative problem solving —although necessary—are not nearly enough to push big advances over the finish line.

The reason is that innovation, at its very core, requires people to change deeply ingrained behaviors: for example, to communicate over a new kind of device, to drive a car with a novel engine, or to trust a previously untried new vaccine technology.

Thus, we discovered that successful innovators are less in the business of invention, than they are in the business of changing people's behavior.

Applied social psychology, if you will.

We emphasize "social" here because each of our five innovators motivated people to change their behavior by building informal alliances in restaurants, bars, and other informal settings that allowed otherwise change-resistant individuals to let down their guards, relax and form friendships, all of which contributed to what social scientist Dr. Timothy Clark, terms Psychological Safety.

With psychological safety born of trusting relationships, people don't fear embarrassment at advancing new ideas, or trying novel approaches. In other words, trusting relationships can help people risk the behavior change necessary to make brilliant innovations succeed.

For example, one innovator we profiled, former intelligence officer Gary Sojka, achieved spectacular success bringing about major changes in the otherwise stultified, risk-averse US defense department, by founding supper clubs at which "good conversations flow over good booze". To promote informality in the ultra-formal national security firmament, Gary came up with unusual names for these supper clubs, such as the "Cockroaches." An important innovation that emerged from Gary's unorthodox supper clubs was IARPA (The intelligence community's version of DARPA, originator of spy satellites, stealth aircraft and UAV's such as Predator)

The bottom line conclusion of our deep dive into the psychology of innovation is summed up by what we call the innovation equation:

Innovation = (Talent+Relationships)/Formality

This simple equation shows how to foster innovation in your own world, if you're so minded.

Gather talent with the requisite personality and cognitive traits for creativity, nurture trusting relationships among them, and do all of this with the bare minimum of process, procedure, and bureaucracy, while maximizing informality...if possible over adult beverages and good food.


Clark, Timothy R (March 2020). The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. Berrett-Koehler. ISBN 9781523087686.

Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist, 5(9), 444–454.

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