Clearing Out The Innovation Cobwebs

I am an innovation process consultant. So it should come as no surprise that I am FOR innovation. Uncovering the next new thing is nothing less than awesome. But I should clarify, I’m for all innovation.

You see, when most people speak of innovation in a business context, you’ll often hear big, sweeping terms like “Innovation Culture,” and “Disruptive Innovation.” While those things are great, there’s another important, albeit less sexy form of innovation. This is an innovation that’s around all of us, at our desks—or in our regularly scheduled meetings. I’m talking about the small, beautiful, ongoing innovations we all strive to achieve every day.

Like writing this article.

Or, keeping my team engaged at Friday’s staff meeting.

Or even, what the heck am I making for dinner tonight?

And although these daily “mini-innovations” seem disarmingly simple, they do have a formidable nemesis: Availability Bias. Without getting too technical, Availability Bias is one of many Cognitive Biases—which are a collection of mental shortcuts that have evolved in our brains over time, shaping our judgment of the world. Social scientists confirm that all humans have them—across age groups and across cultures. To be human is to have Cognitive Biases.

Availability Bias enables us to make decisions about newness quickly, by directing our searching minds to the most recently available and/or most often accessed information. Many of our daily tasks don’t require deep analysis—automatic pilot can take care of the job: so, what immediately comes to mind provides the criteria for most of our decision-making.

But if I’m trying to think innovatively, I’m potentially hampered by my own brain defaulting to the same old ideas—and limiting what I believe is possible—making it very difficult to produce real, breakthrough thinking. As psychologist and behavioral economics expert Daniel Kahneman explains it, we usually operate as if “What you see is all there is.”

To illustrate, I’ll call out a common business innovation situation that many or us encounter on a regular basis: building a PowerPoint deck. (I can hear you groaning from here, my friends.) Storytelling has been a big trend in market research—but telling a story (especially one with data) via PowerPoint is no easy feat. Especially when there’s Availability Bias ready to stand in the way, sending your brain back to the same old charts, clip art, stock photos, and bullet points you always use. You’ve probably even pulled up an old deck as a template to, you know, save time. And you’re not alone.

But the thing is, when you’re trying to pull together a powerful, innovative presentation that will grab and lock your audience’s attention, doing what you’ve always done is not the answer. You’ve got to go farther to tell the story. Take visuals as an example: when you pull an image to support your story, you might find yourself going to a stock photo database, searching a word, and grabbing the first image that makes sense to you.

“Hot.” Hmm, yes. I need a photo of a flame or fire. Done. Move on to the next task.

The challenge with this method is that the image that’s most top of mind is not the one that will make a deeper connection in the audience’s brain—and elicit a memorable, emotional response. It’s not innovative. So how might you move past what’s easily available, and into the deeper, emotional context?

Path to Visuals

One way is with the Path to Visuals exercise. It’s designed to drive you to more compelling presentation content by helping you to:

  • Run through your most obvious ideas.
  • Push you to think of newer, fresher possibilities.

For each concept, the first, second—and even third visual idea you have is not novel enough to make an impact. By the fourth and fifth idea you’ll start to mine the deeper, less readily-available thoughts in your brain. The result? Truly innovative and memorable visual collateral.

Concept Visual #1 Visual #2 Visual #3 Visual #4 Visual #5
Hot Fire / Flame Steaming cup of coffee Steaming baked potato with melting butter Hot pepper Desert with a cactus
Cold Ice Iced Coffee Condensation Winter-frozen window Frozen over water pipe
Fast Timelapse photo of cars on the freeway at night Spaceship traveling at the speed of light Rocket boosters firing Shooting stars Comet
Slow Turtle Molasses Snail with a trail of slime behind it Moss-covered sloth Decay


So why does this exercise work? In ideation, we employ something called Excursion Theory to address our ever-present Availability Bias. Excursions are a series of guided exercises that force your mind to diverge from the beaten track. This detoured thinking allows you to come up with new areas of opportunity that might have never seen the light of day if you only relied on what was immediately available to your brain.

Excursion Theory in Innovation

In Excursion Theory, there really is no such thing as stretching too far. It’s always easier to make a wild idea possible, than to make an old or boring idea exciting.

Metaphorical Thinking Graph

Here’s how it works:

We are trained to think logistically and analytically, but when you’re trying to innovate, that will only take you so far. Metaphorical or Approximate thinking takes you to the next level by stretching your view of the world (or your market, or your product category).

Metaphorical thinking gets you to communicate a new idea by starting from a familiar category—but pushes you to see beyond what something is, to what it’s like—and then to what it could be like. Eventually, you push further out to even wilder ideas.

The final step is to bring the idea back into the realm of possibility (at Ideas To Go we use something called Forness® thinking), and to see the idea more clearly—how it fits your objectives and the realities of the world. Given that our human tendency is to retain existing models, you need to consciously be doing things to help you and your team break out of this natural limitation on new thinking.

Whether it’s getting outside your own conference room, bringing outside perspectives to your insight discovery/idea generation processes, talking to your consumers, or using Excursion Theory-based exercises to stretch thinking—there are so many ways to take solid steps to thinking more innovatively. No matter if you’re cooking up the next greatest presentation—or just a family-friendly dinner for tonight. Good luck and bon appétit.

Dina Pancoast

Dina Pancoast is a Creative Process Designer and Facilitator as well as the developer of Ideas To Go’s Behavioral Innovation® Workshop. Dina has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and also studied mime and physical theatre at the Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Prior to joining Ideas To Go in 2014, Dina worked in the media industry as a creative process and strategy expert for radio, television, newspaper, and digital properties. Trained in Creative Problem Solving in 2004, she has facilitated hundreds of sessions for clients in every industry imaginable.