Mindsets, Futures And Innovation

The Department of Defense and many technology-based organizations are showing a renewed interest in innovation – and rightfully so. In so many areas the US is falling behind China and Russia, although Russia is having its own problems with technology – hypersonic weapons, for instance.  Being behind the curve is not a good place to be in.  At a HASC hearing in April, USD (R&E) Griffin, and former Google CEO, Schmidt, blamed it on constrictive acquisition, appropriation and human capital policies, and said that greater speed in translating technology into fielded capability is needed to achieve and maintain our technological edge.  Generally the technology-based companies agree.  My perspective on that is Yes and No.

Obviously, the speed of translating technology into fielded capability is important, but…   Are we focusing on the “right” technologies?  Are we just perpetuating and extrapolating from past successes? Are we developing and innovating in areas of human capability?  Could there be better ways of achieving our aims?

In the past, I used to think that innovation was a product of three elements that I regarded as critical:

  • Genuine demand and benefit (current or latent)
  • Technological feasibility in an appropriate timeframe
  • Economic feasibility in an appropriate timeframe

Now, I believe that innovation in the human domain is as important as technology – and figuring out the right things to do is as important as doing them right.   This article discusses my own evolution in thought.  All ideas come from or through the human mind.  We have capabilities of being logical and rational, and imaginative and creative.  Almost all our science and technology comes from the logical and rational part of our mind/brain, but what if we were able to bring our imaginations and creativity to bear on our science and technology?  What if we have capabilities of which we are virtually unaware, including intuition?  Interestingly, science fiction writers have a better track record at predicting new technologies than do scientists.

I have written papers on the subject of the three elements mentioned above, describing successful innovation as being like a 3-legged race with the above elements as the 3 legs – of approximately equal lengths. (see my Article below):

Irresistible Innovation

Some of that still applies, but as I have learned more about the psychology of innovation, I have come to realize that there is much more to it – and that I had been aware of it at a subconscious level, but had never articulated it before.   I have been a futurist and strategist for the last forty years, and for most of the time, I have conducted my work using interactive workshops with my clients.   At first, I designed the workshops around the things my clients were concerned about – technology, systems, processes, adversaries… but while they produced some interesting results, there was nothing special about them.   Then I began to add imaginative and creative elements to our workshops, getting people to think about possibilities – some of them quite way-out and extreme – and the workshops became more successful in generating new ideas and getting the participants to think outside their boxes, even after the workshops were over.

I have recently come across the work of a professor of psychiatry from Harvard – Dr. Srini Pillay[1] – and his research describes what I had discovered from an empirical perspective, and expands on it.

Our education, mostly left-brained, linear and logical, tells us to focus – focus on the problem, focus on the kinds of solutions we desire.  Focusing can certainly be beneficial, but too much focusing can leave people “brain dead.”  Rather than opening up our minds up to other ways of looking at the problems, and being open to all kinds of ideas and solutions, too much focus can shut down our creativity.   What we need when that happens, or even before it happens, is to play, relax, doodle, and engage in other right-brained, creative activities.  Dr. Pillay suggests that people have different mindsets that are partly formed from nature, and partly from nurture.  Clearly our education is a large part of nurture, and since education tends to be linear and fixed, so are many mindsets.  The mindsets required for thinking futuristically and innovatively are what he calls “possibility mindsets.”  Most people with possibility mindsets are great believers in imagination.  Einstein said  “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

As we have described in our book, Strategy with Passion,[2] when we undertake our workshops, the first workshop is expansionary and exploratory.  We designed our workshops that way, because we knew that our client participants, mostly military, engineers or scientists, would be coming in with problems to solve, and we wanted them to be able to put aside their current perspectives on those problems and see them differently – reframe them.  So we took them through various creative and imaginative processes from “metaphor” (actually, simile) in which we would get them to finish a sentence “The future of this (organization/technology/product/process…) is like…   We asked for the ideas that just popped into their heads – no deep thinking allowed!  We told them those ideas could come from songs, movies, animals, flowers … and so on.   We had some wonderful examples – bougainvillea, pregnant salmon, sunrise, Pink Floyd.  We then got the group to select 3 of the most way out ideas, and then to describe the characteristics of each.   Finally, we asked “what is all of this telling us about the future of the (organization/technology/product/process…?)”  The insights this exercise gave us were enormous.

We also have a science fiction session, in which we ask about what ideas from science fiction would be useful today.  Generally there are some great ideas, but they are too way out with no way of getting there in the near futures (Romulan Cloaking Device, for instance) so then we ask “what do we have today, or what can we imagine today, that might approximate this way out idea?  We have many different ways of asking questions related to this, so that they can think about whatever is under consideration from different perspectives.

Yet another technique is “ideal if…” where we ask them to complete the sentence “It would be ideal for this organization, technology… if…”

All of these exercises and more get their creativity charged up, they are fun, they create a lot of laughter and, in Dr. Pillay’s terms, they unfocus the minds of the participants, enabling them to see more possibilities, and allowing new and creative ideas to come in.

Napping is another way to unfocus, and many geniuses perfected the power nap – Einstein, Tesla, Edison, Kekulé and more – and developed ideas that way.

What do I mean by this?  For instance, Benzene was known to be an organic compound with six carbons and six hydrogens C6H6 but no one knew how this organic molecule was structured. A chain structure would not satisfy the valence rules August Kekulé had proposed. While puzzling over it, he said  “…  I turned the chair to the fireplace and fell half asleep. Again the atoms gamboled before my eyes… My mind’s eyes, trained by visions of a similar kind, now distinguished larger formations of various shapes. Long rows, in many ways more densely joined; everything in movement, winding and turning like snakes. And look, what was that? One snake grabbed its own tail, and mockingly the shape whirled before my eyes. As if struck by lightning I awoke. This time again I spent the rest of the night working out the consequences.”  This gave Kekulé the realization that benzene had a ring structure and, in this way, the valence rules would be observed.

I have written about boxes before (The Box – BIZCATALYST360) but now I’d like to finish with the words from the song:  When was the last time you did something for the first time?   That’s what innovation is all about!

I am becoming a fan of Dr. Pillay.  I’ve never met him, but I like his ideas, and plan to use them in our work on futures and innovation.

[1]Srini Pillay, MD.,



Christine MacNulty
Christine MacNulty
CHRISTINE MacNulty has forty years’ experience as a consultant in long-term strategic -planning for concepts as well as organizations, futures studies, foresight, and technology forecasting, technology assessment and related areas, as well as socio-cultural change. For the last twenty years, most of her consultancy has been conducted for the Department of Defense and the Services, NATO ACT, NATO NEC, the British Army’s Force Development & Training Command, and the German BBK. Prior to that her work was in the commercial arena where she had Fortune Global 500 clients. During the last thirty-five years Christine MacNulty has contributed methods and models for understanding social and cultural change through people’s values. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1989. She is the coauthor of two books: Industrial Applications of Technology Forecasting, Wiley, 1971 and Strategy with Passion – A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future, August 2016. Her paper: “Method for minimizing the negative consequences of nth order effects in strategic communication actions and inactions” was published in NATO Defence Strategic Communications Journal, p 99, Winter 2015. Two monographs “Truth, Perception & Consequences” (2007) and “Transformation: From the Outside In or the Inside Out” (2008) were published by the Army War College. Perceptions, Values & Motivations in Cyberspace appeared in the IO Journal, 3rd Quarter, 2009, and The Value of Values for IO, SC & Intel was published in the August 2010 edition of the IO Journal.

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  1. Thanks a lot, Ms. Christine, for this in-depth study of Mindsets, Futures, and Innovation. You have clearly shown one of the most analytical ways of Problem-solving.

    While I have always admired your mastery of the subject on hand, it makes even more sense for a person of my thinking to derive maximum value out of your compilation of facts as studies through your hands-on workshops.

    It shall certainly be an honor for me to read more of your experiences. Thank You!

    My family joins me in Wishing You and All Your Loved Ones, Happy Holidays, and A Very Productive, Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year 2019!

    • Thank you very much, Bharat! I always appreciate your comments and your articles! A friend just sent me “Pause Point” by John Harricharan, and he says very similar things about creativity and finding solutions. I would love to find a way to encourage people to take this more relaxed approach – rather than focusing too soon, and striving hard in ways that cut off their creativity!

      I wonder whether we might find a way to combine our insights?

      Warmest wishes for a wonderful and productive New Year to you!