Innovation secret discovered at NASA


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innovation secret discovered at nasa
An innovation secret discovered at NASA could unlock breakthrough performance for many. There was a very important research study conducted more than 45 years ago at NASA. This information can help you lead innovation and transformation in your organization.

In 1968 NASA asked Dr. George Land to develop a creativity assessment. Why? They needed to unlock the innovation secret. They needed to increase innovation by hiring the most creative engineers and scientists.

The test worked so well at identifying the best candidates that they decided to administer it to four to five year-olds to the test their level and creative thinking.

innovation secret discoveredInnovation secret discovered in children

What they found was astonishing. 98 percent of the four to five year-old kids were considered genius on the creative thinking scale. This finding was so amazing, when compared to the adult job candidates that they decided to continue testing those kids. They assessed them again when they turned age 10.

What they discovered was that only 30 percent of those kids actually scored in the genius-level on creative thinking. It declined from 98 percent measuring genius to now only 30 percent five years later. Needless to say they had to carry on with their research.

They tested the same kids again at the age of 15 and they discovered only 12 percent of them scored in the genius-level for creative thinking. Did their research reveal a dying of the brain? That was my first thought.

The research was even more startling when I learned that over 300,000 adults with an average age of 31 completed the test. Only two percent of those people scored in the genius-level for creative thinking.

Our brain is dying

So what’s happening? They did not find brain atrophy. The research discovered that there are two different types of creative thinking that are necessary in order to innovate. The two types of thinking that you need are called divergent and convergent thinking.

Divergent thinking is what is typically associated with innovation. This is the brainstorming about the unusual, about the non-traditional, about the forward-thinking, and the whole concept associated with out-of-the-box thinking.

When people talk about innovation they are often referencing divergent thinking. However, you also need convergent thinking. And what that refers to taking your ideas and making them fit within your box. In order to apply your ideas you must have those two forms of thinking.

“Ideas are cheap and abundant; what is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.” – Peter Drucker

Just thinking wildly without being able to apply your ideas and create impact may be fun, but it’s foolish. In business, you must move forward. Therefore you need both types of thinking. But there’s a catch.

What was discovered is during the education process, that we all go through, we are taught to use both types of thinking at the same time. That is bad. When divergent and convergent thinking are combined it results in the decline that was discovered from the age of five being 98 percent genius on the creative thinking scale to only two percent for the 31 year-old adults.

What this represents is a huge risk for organizations as they try to go through:

  • Customer-centric transformation
  • New product development
  • Ways to serve customers
  • Ways to obtain customers
  • Ways to retain customers
  • Ways to engage employees

What do you need in order to be more creative and innovative? You must separate out your divergent and convergent thinking. You must stop doing them at the same time. You can become one of the two percent if you change the behavior you have learned.

Tools will enable you

But to do that you need tools. To get people into the right framework, into the right mindset, you need tools to help you separate out the divergent and convergent thinking. Because when you combine the two types of thinking you’ll experience this:

  • We’ve never done it that way before
  • We tried something like that before and it didn’t work
  • I don’t think that’s something that is going to work here
  • They tried it over there and it failed

Those pushback responses are symptoms of trying to do divergent and convergent thinking at the same time. The Brain Writing tool is one of many tools that can help you actually focus specifically on the divergent thinking process (example here).

There’s more

This innovation secret of separating your thinking found at NASA focuses on the types of intellectual thinking you need. This research finding can be very powerful. But realize it’s not all you need. To increase your innovation production you must have more than this to blast off.

Jim Rembach
Jim Rembach is recognized as a Top 50 Thought Leader and CX Influencer. He's a certified Emotional Intelligence practitioner and host of the Fast Leader Show podcast and president of Call Center Coach, the world's only virtual blended learning academy for contact center supervisors and emerging supervisors. He’s a founding member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association’s CX Expert Panel, Advisory Board Member for Customer Value Creation International (CVCI), and Advisory Board Member for CX University.


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