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Three Ways Your Brain is Stifling Innovation


They say alcohol kills brain cells. These habits kill innovation.

They are subtle but relentless. Knowing what they are is half the battle. Choosing to let them go is not easy.

Consider this example – one my father told me when I was a young lad.

Three men made an unplanned stop at a hotel during a fierce storm and requested rooms for the night. Only one room was available and it cost $30. The men, realizing this was their only choice, took the room – each man shelling out $10. As they headed to their room and the bellboy gathered their luggage together, the hotel manager thought to himself, “I really shouldn’t charge them $30 for one room in a storm.” So he handed the bellboy five one-dollar bills and said, “Give this to the men as a discount.” On the way up to the room, the bellboy realized that the three men could not easily divide $5 amongst themselves, so he pocketed $2 for himself and returned $3 to them as the discount.

Since the men each originally paid $10 each and each received $1 back, they paid a total of $27, or $9 each. The bellboy kept $2 for himself. $27 + $2 = $29. Where is the missing dollar?

I remember being stumped for months. The story would recirculate in my brain often and I would try to use all my power to find that missing dollar. My way of thinking kept me from finding the answer.

If your way of thinking is preventing you from finding the answer right now, I refer you to the methods of Captain James Kirk in solving the Kobayashi Maru.

When we attempt innovation, we can easily fall prey to one or more of three bad habits.


We often fall prey to this innovation-killer, even to the point of irony when we assume that we haven’t assumed. Here are ways to avoid this deadly pitfall…

  1. Question the question. Never assume the question you are trying to answer is framed properly. Poke holes in the question itself. What constraints has your question unknowingly placed on you that will blind you from thinking outside those constraints? Could you create a better question that answers your original but also answers an even bigger, more relevant question?
  2. Question the process. Your question may be spot-on, but have you assumed that your research methods you plan to use or the route you think you need to take are necessary or even appropriate? You might have a very simple solution (think Occam’s Razor) that saves time and money, as in the case of the toothpaste factory problem.
  3. Question the answer. We can so easily place ourselves inside of an unnecessary box by presupposing an answer to the question, as in this old brainteaser…A boy and his father were rushed to the hospital emergency room after a car crash. The father was wheeled into one OR, the boy into another. A doctor scrubbed in and approached the boy, saying, “I cannot operate on this boy. He is my son.”
    In many cases, the answer may be smaller, larger, or completely different than you think. Try these other problems to help overcome the habit of assuming the constraints of your answer.
  4. Question everything. I don’t want to assume I’ve covered all the bases here. There is always something to question. Or is there?

Linear Thinking

The scientific method is an excellent tool to follow, but it is not meant to send us into the trap of assuming that the path from the question to the answer lies along a single straight line with a series of dots that can be followed in linear progression.

For example, there is the famous story of Karl Gauss as a little boy, when his frustrated teacher wanted some peace and quiet and demanded that all students take out a piece of paper and calculate the sum of the numbers from 1 to 100. “That will keep them busy for awhile,” the teacher must have thought. However, while the rest of the class struggled forward using the linear method of “1+2=3. 3+3=6. 6+4=10…”, Karl Gauss was done in a few minutes. He noted that if he grouped the numbers in pairs (1,100), (2,99), (3,98), he ended up with 50 pairs of numbers that had a sum of 101. 50×101 = 5,050.

Sometimes innovation can come by simply taking the perceived steps ahead and either grouping, rearranging, or leaping over them.

Dualistic Thinking

This is where I struggle most, and I suspect most of us do as well. By dualistic thinking, I mean the habit we have of dividing everything into two distinct groups and preferring one over the other. Should we use the left or right brain in this situation? Is this approach right or wrong? Should we purchase this product or not? Do we write our own software or buy off-the-shelf?

We wield the sword of either/or
And, our boat moored, we ne’er explore.

He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.

Dualistic thinking and its grandfather, reductionism, can often filter out the subtle dynamics at play between otherwise discrete points. For example, dualistic thinking might predict that a molecule containing one part hydrogen gas and two parts oxygen gas to be yet another gas instead of a transparent and profitable liquid sold in plastic bottles around the world.

This is most evident to me as a CIO as I work closely with data analysts and digital marketing experts to determine which of our efforts are working and which are not. We have to consciously fight the urge to attribute a new customer to one particular PPC campaign or organic search result. The reality is that every customer is on a unique journey, and we must evolve toward Advertising Analytics 2.0. One customer may search for a rare art work on Google, find us, and immediately bid. Another may find us while researching something out of idle curiosity one day and then return months later on a wholly different mission and choose us because they remembered their last helpful experience.

Being aware of these pitfalls and learning to focus on their encroachment in your move toward innovation takes practice – and not in a silo. Collaborate with others to balance perspective and find mentors who can help you see your tunnel vision. Over time you will begin to see better with your own eyes.


Brian Shipman is the CIO of Heritage Auctions – a fantastically unique place to work. Heritage’s mission is to help people successfully acquire or pass on rare and significant objects that have both monetary and soul-stirring value. His job is to create a quality customer experience using the red carpet of technology.

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