The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking…no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.  We must learn to see the world anew.

–Albert Einstein

I have quoted that first sentence for many years, but it was only a couple of weeks ago that I saw (or registered) that last sentence.   What does it mean to see the world anew?  Can we truly invent or innovate without doing that?  In other articles, I have spoken about the need for different perspectives, which is a similar idea, but it is not quite there.  The Buddhists speak of a “beginner’s mind” – and that may be a good start for new and innovative thinking.

Innovation is a very hot topic today, especially in the military and technologically-based industries, but how easy can it be for people who have devoted their lives to the scientific method – with all its logic rationality, and rules – to be open to the imagination and creativity of a “beginner’s mind?”  Yet that is what is needed.  We need to be able to put aside our reliance on models and AI and turn to imagination, creativity, the arts and nature, and even inspiration.

The first question we might ask is:  Where do ideas, especially brand new ideas, come from?   And related to this question is that occasionally different people will develop the same ideas or invent the same things at almost the same time, even though they come from different parts of the world, have different backgrounds and be unaware of the others’ existence.  These are known as “multiple independent discoveries.”  How does that happen?

There are people who claim that all new ideas have, at their root, a genealogy from history, art and other sources including earlier inventions and innovations.  Steven Johnson, a leading light of today’s interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to innovation, says:  “We take the ideas that we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”  But what does “stumbled across” really mean?  Was Kekulé’s insight about benzene rings that he identified from watching the flames of a fire, just “stumbling across?”  And what did Einstein, Ford, Edison, and Tesla find so rewarding in napping? [1]

At one time, scientists believed that the brain was the source of all new ideas.  That has been changing.  Organizations such as the HeartMath Institute, NeuroGym, and many scientists, psychologists, and medics such as Gregg Braden, Bruce Lipton, Mark Waldman, Mark Hyman, Candace Pert, and more are suggesting that the brain and the heart work in conjunction with each other, and that the heart plays a more significant role.  In addition, they have discovered that there are heartwaves and brainwaves that can be measured at significant distance from those physical organs, and that can affect each other.  Indeed, while I do not know of research that has been conducted yet, these interactions could be a source of the “multiple independent discoveries.”

Carl Jung developed the concept of Collective Consciousness that describes the beliefs, motivations, and behavior of groups within society.  Could these have arisen as a function of heart- and brainwave communication over an extended period of time?  Could the energy forms of those communications persist?  Could they be sensed and picked up by people with similar characteristics?  I’m not a psychologist or neuroscientist, but I am curious.   Could we use this information to generate new research projects?  It seems to me that all these ideas could form a basis for really seeing the world anew.

We are not there yet in terms of our understanding of how new ideas develop, but we do need to expand our thinking, so let’s take a more current and practical approach.

In the consumer/industrial world, the focus of innovation, new products, and services is the consumer/end-user.  As I was writing this article, I received a notice about a new McKinsey report on fusing data and design.[2]  It recognizes that innovation needs to be end-user oriented, which is a drum we have been beating for the last 25 years. [3]  It also recognizes that it requires cross-functional talent and teams and exceptional leadership.  The same is true in the military world, although the problems and the requirements are more difficult; the mindsets are frequently less flexible and the rules are more rigid.   They have recognized this for some time, and the Army has started a Mad Scientist Initiative and Laboratory.  What is missing is the imagination and creativity of dreamers, artists, poets, and writers, although they are now incorporating science fiction authors into their explorations, which is a good start.

What else can we do to encourage imaginative thinking?   The following is a list of ideas in no particular order or priority.  They are ones that we have used over the last 25 years or so, and many of them have been successful.   They are fairly conventional.

  • Encourage curiosity. Look at trends and/or events and speculate – wonder why that happened?
  • Be voracious readers of all genres. Sci-fi that has a significant human element, not just science and technology (Ender’s Game, the original Foundation Trilogy, the original Dorsai Trilogy…) Detective stories of the Who Done It? variety so that people can start to examine logic trails.  I specify reading.  TV and movies take away that kind of personal exploration and imagination.
  • Activities that encourage creativity and imagination – art, poetry, writing fiction, writing letters to well-known people…
  • Draw or paint ideas
  • Daydream and spend time imagining
  • All these can be turned into group activities – writing stories with one person at a time adding a sentence, for instance.
  • The groups should include people from many backgrounds and disciplines – especially arts subjects
  • Asking questions or making statements to which others respond: What if?  Wouldn’t it be nice if…?  Could we see that differently?  How could we see that differently?   If we turned that on its head, how would it look?
  • Engage in collaborative discussions at any time that someone brings a new idea. (In one of our workshops, one guy got his colleagues up at 2:00 am to discuss a new idea!)

Less conventional ideas are:

  • Learn to meditate or quiet the mind. Our minds are never still and quiet.  Even in meditation, it is difficult to maintain a quiet time.  Ideas flow all the time.  We assume they are random thoughts, perhaps triggered by some event, and we dismiss them as noise.  But are they?
  • Listen intently to ideas that seem to just pop into your head. I have two friends who “downloaded” two books that they published and sold.   My father did the same thing.  They had no intentions of becoming authors, but the ideas just came to them.
  • Many people awaken in the night with ideas – as the individual who awakened his colleagues at 2:00 am did. I and a number of colleagues get our best ideas at 3-4:00 am.   I find it useful to take notes of those thoughts, even in the middle of the night.  Collect them for a week or two, and you may find that together they provide insight into something you have been pondering.
  • Set an intention before going to sleep. Tell yourself that by morning, you want an answer to something.  It can easily be something as simple as the location of a lost article, or an idea of a solution to a problem
  • Have someone focus on something simple – a red balloon or a broken wine glass – and see if others can “see” the object of focus
  • Or see if people can call correctly the toss of a coin
  • Listen to dreamy music or music that stimulates alpha or theta brainwaves, or that has binaural beats.
  • Practice, practice, practice!

Quite a number of people are now giving courses on intuition.  Some of them might be useful (I have only tried two, and they were OK, but not spectacular.)  It may be useful to “play” with a group of friends to develop ideas and see whether the others can pick up on them without assistance, as mentioned above.  These could include friends or family, not just colleagues.

Try some of these and let me know how you get on by commenting on this article.

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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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Laura Staley
Laura Staley

I thoroughly enjoyed this article, Christine. I especially appreciate your list of “less conventional” pathways to innovation. I continue to be amazed that we’ve created cell phones and tech to communicate and yet, self-awareness, compassionate words/deeds, a peaceful world where humans actually collaborate and uplift one another seems at bit elusive. Will we learn to create a transformation in being human, in being humane? Can creativity be applied to human behavior to bring an end to child abuse or hunger or greed? Can we begin to shift our inner worlds towards grace and love? Thank you so much for your article as it obviously inspired these reflections in my inner world of heart/mind. :)

Christine MacNulty
Christine MacNulty

Thank you very much Laura! I think the reason is lack of awareness of and interest in introspection. My work is helping clients develop new technologies and processes, and, by taking them away from just bright, shiny objects, and into thinking about people, that may make some of them question their own internal capabilities. I’m with you in your desire to shift to love and grace – and to see that it needn’t be separate from the world and its technologies.

People First
People First

Energy … have you ever read Carla Hannaford … … I have devoted a couple of paragraphs to her in my next set of articles on BizCatalyst.

Christine MacNulty
Christine MacNulty

Thank you. No, I hadn’t come across her before. I just looked her up from your link and her book looks very interesting