Innovation is Directly Related to How You Think

October 23, 2014 by nick.halley

Originally Posted by Caes Career Advancement Blog

There should be little doubt that navigating through the challenges of the new economy, both domestically and internationally, will require new ways of thinking.

To be successful, it will be necessary to abandon the typical “reactionary” response to changing circumstances and instead opt for a more “proactive” entrepreneurial approach in order to take advantage of the new opportunities that inevitably arise. Those of us who understand that the “old ways” of doing things are no longer effective will be one step ahead in utilizing practical innovative thinking to create those new ideas, methodologies, products and services that are essential to our mastering the new economic and business challenges that we face.

“Innovation is the specific tool of entrepreneurs, the means by which they exploit change as an opportunity for a different business or a different service. It is capable of being presented as a discipline, capable of being learned, capable of being practiced. Entrepreneurs need to search purposefully for the sources of innovation, the changes and their symptoms that indicate opportunities for successful innovation. And they need to know and to apply the principles of successful innovation.”  Peter Drucker

Unfortunately, the great majority of people will spend more time talking about the need for innovation than taking Mr. Drucker’s advice. But those people who do understand the need for urgency in moving forward will be the first to understand what innovation means to their particular situation and then to take whatever steps necessary to integrate innovative thinking into their work and environments. Knowing that innovation begins with people, it becomes paramount for us to investigate better ways of identifying and developing more innovative mangers and staff, and to facilitate an environment that will encourage and support their innovative abilities.

 Education, Experience, Technical Capability, and Intelligence

Obviously, for a person to be successful in their employment role they will need appropriate levels of intelligence, education, technical skills and experience as a foundation. Then, what separates the average from the above average performer is their work personality. For above average performance to be sustained over time, it is critical that an appropriate personality match, to the requirements of the role, the team, the manager and the culture, be laid on top of this foundation.

It is important to avoid a common assumption that intelligence and technical skills are the main defining characteristics of innovation. Experience shows that not all educated, experienced, intelligent and technically capable people are innovative. And further, not all innovative people apply themselves to transform their ideas into practical reality. So while we can say that people who are innovative will typically possess appropriate levels of intelligence, education, technical skills and experience, they must also be able to think in appropriate ways and they will need to have the relevant personality characteristics that will support the practical application of their wonderful ideas in the real world.

Appropriate Problem Solving Capability and Cognitive Scope Are Crucial to Innovation

 Cognitive scope refers to how a person handles information complexity. The greater a person’s ability to cope with complex interrelated issues, the greater their ability to think ahead and envision practical solutions to problems. Isn’t this what innovation is all about? Those people who have the ability to conceptualize and envision multiple possibilities (or possible solutions) will have more options at their disposal, and will also have the capacity to envision the practical application of their solutions within increasing time horizons (scope) into the future.

From an organizational analysis / development standpoint, we know that the complexity of problems, and the cognitive scope required to cope with them, will increase as you move up the organizational hierarchy. The CEO has much more complex issues to contend with, and has to envision effective solutions within greater time frames, than does a front-line worker. And since the nature of problems experienced will differ between levels, the thinking process required to provide innovative solutions will differ as well.

The example below provides an overview of the possible relationships between organizational hierarchy, responsibility, scope and thinking style. Again, as we move up each level, we see that responsibilities increase, the complexity of problems increases and the scope requirements (time horizons) for effective solutions increase. It is also important to note that people in the bottom four levels will tend to think in concrete terms while people in the top five levels, due to increased problem complexity and scope requirements, will tend to think in abstract terms.

Level     Position                           General Responsibility                       Scope                          General Thinking
8             CEO                                 Constructs and pursues                      50 + Years                Extreme Abstract
                                                         world-wide strategic plans
7             Regional CEO                Constructs and pursues                   20 – 50 Years                    High Abstract
                                                         regional strategic plans
6             Regional VP                   Leads the accumulated impact         10 – 20 Years               Medium Abstract
                                                         of multiple business units
5             Business Unit VP           Optimizes the function of                   5 – 10 Years                      Low Abstract
                                                          a single business unit                                        
4             General Manager          Manages multiple, interdependent      2 – 5 Years                     Low Concrete
                                                           projects balancing resources
3             Manager                          Link between the organization and     1 – 2 Years                Medium Concrete
                                                           operations of the company
2             First Line Manager        Provides team Supervision           3 Months – 1 Year                High Concrete
1             Worker                             Follows routine pre-defined             1 – 3 Months                Extreme Concrete

The ability to think in abstract terms is not necessarily limited to “people at the top” – but it will be more natural for them. Similarly, people at the lower levels will be more comfortable with concrete thinking but depending on the situation, some will be more able to think in abstract terms – especially those who are “moving up the ranks”. These thinking preferences are directly related to each groups’ role in the innovative process. The more complex nature of the problems facing the top four levels requires that they respond more strategicallytoward innovation and thus requires higher level abstract thinking. Based on their respective responsibilities, people in the bottom four levels will take a more operational approach towards innovation thus focusing on practical application by thinking in more concrete terms.

It is important to note that a major component of intellectual development can be found in the process of gradually moving away from extremely concrete thinking to increasingly abstract thinking while expanding the variety of information content a person must consider (complexity and scope). So, from a developmental standpoint, by knowing an individual’s current cognitive scope and age, it will be possible to determine when an individual’s problem solving capability will grow, when they will become more comfortable with increasingly abstract concepts, and when they will be able to handle those innovative challenges that require a greater range of cognitive scope. Knowing this has tremendous implications for hiring innovative managers and personnel, in identifying current and potential innovators within our current compliment, and in creating internal developmental initiatives to encourage greater innovation.

Abstract Thinking And Concrete Thinking

Concrete thinkers will tend to think in terms of specific examples or occurrences. Abstract thinkers go beyond thinking only about the specifics to consider any appropriate attributes and relationships that could be associated with those specific examples. While a concrete thinker will think about a particular object, like a pen, a more abstract thinker will think about pens in general. A concrete thinker sees the pen as being small, while an abstract thinker will consider the implications of size. A concrete thinker counts three pens while an abstract thinker thinks about the implications regarding the numbers. Generally speaking, abstract thinkers are able to perceive relationships and make analogies that concrete thinkers may not readily see, and this not only enables them to better understand higher levels of abstraction, it also enables them to see more options and alternatives from a wider perspective.

Sometimes people directly relate concrete and abstract thinking to how practical or impractical an idea might be. For many people practical ideas are more easily understood because they represent what is known and familiar. Abstract ideas can be more difficult to understand, and reside in unfamiliar and unknown territory. In our example, people in levels one to four are primarily focused on coping with less complex, known specifics, while people in levels five to eight are primarily focused on more complex unknown generalities. In other words, a conceptual evaluation of world market conditions (abstract) may be seen as being impractical to some because it is not specifically tied to action, while a business plan or a manufacturing procedure (concrete) has more relevance because it specifically states how to proceed.

Most people have a natural tendency to gravitate toward what is more comfortable (the familiar) and to move away from the unknown (the new).  As previously mentioned, familiarity established through appropriate education, technical capability, and experience is a necessary foundation, but we can argue that too much familiarity may limit our perspective (“It worked before, why change it”?), cause us to focus in concrete ways (extreme / high concrete thinking) and inhibit our ability to be innovative through a more abstract approach to the problems involved. The result is that our innovation is inhibited and becomes more incremental than it could be. An innovator is separated from a “maintainer” when they can think beyond any limitations that exist due to their more familiar and comfortable technical focus. The typical concrete thinking engineer may become more innovative when he or she stops thinking like an engineer!

We Need to Identify, Hire, Develop and Promote More Abstract Thinking Senior Managers  

 Upper management’s role is to provide overall vision, and then to facilitate the development of an environment where innovation will thrive in accordance to their long-term business objectives. Only via abstract thinking and advanced problem solving capability will they be able to consider and correlate all of the necessary elements to accomplish this within their respective time horizon. Since support for innovation will generally “filter down” from the top, upper management’s ability to innovatively contribute, in accordance to the requirements of their respective level, is essential to the timely integration and progression of innovation throughout the organization. Should weakness exist in their capability, the negative impact will similarly filter down to the subsequent levels below and make it more difficult to encourage, implement and support innovation.

As well, knowing that concrete thinking is most often associated with practical action, senior managers would be wise to define their “vision” in concrete terms as not doing so may open the door for resistance. Since subordinate concrete thinkers prefer an action-oriented point of reference, they may not relate to a new abstract concept unless it can be expressed in a language that satisfies their practical requirements.

More On The Relationship Between Role, Thinking Style and Innovation

 Just as an upper manager’s role in the innovative process requires an abstract thinking style, for innovation to be effective, other organizational members’ thinking styles will need to correlate with their respective roles as well. By understanding that innovation does not mean the same thing to every person, and that innovation can take different forms, we would be wise to first look at what type of innovation is required, and then determine, on a per-person or per-level basis, the required problem solving capability and thinking style that will be most appropriate for success. Anthony Gregorc, author of An Adult’s Guide to Style, helps us to go farther in this approach by providing us with a general model regarding the differences in how some people think.

Gregoric begins by providing a definition of both sequential thinkers and random thinkers. To him, sequential thinkers are people who are most effective when following a step by step process over a period of time. They are comfortable when a task is well planned, and they prefer to have a thorough understanding of what to expect at the beginning, through the process and at the end. Initially, they like to gather all relevant information and then, prepared, they will proceed towards the intended goal. In motivational terminology we can say that these people are procedurally motivated, and we know that they will be frustrated and de-motivated when required to deviate from their plan.

Comparatively, Gregoric’s random thinkers often start at the end and work their way backwards. These people are more experimental and will tend to direct their focus on what is most important at the moment. Since they are more likely to take short cuts, and even skip steps in their innovative process, they are often seen as being “disorganized” by sequential people. But random thinkers can still implement practical ideas, and they accomplish this by “reverse engineering” their new idea or process to verify that it is factually supported in the real world. Motivated by options, random thinkers can become de-motivated when forced to work within a strict procedural thinking process.

Gregorc then adds a further dimension to his theory by focusing on how people like to learn. Here he distinguishes between concrete learners and abstract learners, defining concrete learners as those people who prefer to learn through their physical senses (what we can touch, see, feel, smell, and hear), and defining abstract learners as people who prefer to learn by working with ideas in order to get a better understanding of the world. He goes further to suggest that concrete learners like to get things done in a predictable way and depend on improving the process to do it, while abstract learners like to experiment with things, trying to determine how they work.

By combining these two concepts Gregorc provides us with four thinking style quadrants:

Concrete sequential thinkers are practical, well organized and tend to focus on reality. Because they process information in an ordered, sequential and linear way, their thinking processes tend to be logical and deliberate. They prefer an environment that is structured, practical, quiet, and stable. They like to make schedules and adhere to a plan, they are detail-oriented, they focus on physical objects and they aim for perfection. Concrete sequential thinkers approach innovation by improving the original rather than being original. These people contribute most effectively when improving a process (quality improvement and cost reduction).

 Concrete random thinkers are also practical and live in the physical world, but they prefer to learn by trial and error.  Rather than follow a planned procedure, they prefer trial and error experimentation, and taking risks with whatever options are found. And while they focus on practical applications, methods and processes, their thinking processes are instinctive, intuitive, and impulsive. They prefer an environment that is stimulating and competitive and that allows them to conduct independent problem solving. Concrete random thinkers approach innovation in “original, inventive, and unique ways”. The concrete random person will be strongest at developing practical innovative products.

Abstract sequential thinkers like to develop ideas in a logical way. They love theory and abstract thought, focusing their attention on knowledge, concepts and synthesis. Their thinking processes are intellectual, analytical, correlative, fluid, and fast. Very logical, they need to analyze before making decisions. They prefer an environment that is ordered, quiet, independent, and mentally stimulating.

Abstract sequential thinkers approach innovation by “modeling, theorizing and synthesizing”. These people are best at providing the necessary research so their products have strong theoretical and practical support.

 Abstract random thinkers prefer to rely on feelings and emotions, they like to listen to others and since they prefer group harmony this type of person is good at establishing a rapport with people. They focus on emotional attachments, relationships, and memories. They prefer unstructured, people-oriented environments that provide emotional experiences and physical freedom, and that are active and colorful. Abstract random thinkers’ approach to innovation is “imaginative and often expressed through music and art”. This does not mean that they are only going to be of value to the “fine arts”. Rather, these people will contribute to the innovative process because they are good at both facilitating internal collaboration and at networking with external people, and therefore they help to encourage communication and co-operation between departments within the organization.

We need to remember that no one thinking style is better than the others. All of them are valuable. Gregorc’s approach helps us to understand and identify the type of thinking (and person) that will be most effective, depending on the specific requirements that arise from the form of innovation that we want and need. Failure to make this correlation, and adapt, will result in an unsatisfactory innovative process and the loss of opportunity.

Innovative Teams

From a team building perspective, depending on the nature of the innovation project, an innovative team could be built comprising members from each of the four quadrants. But we need to understand that, while everyone can provide a positive contribution in one respect, the differences in each thinking type could inhibit the positive functioning of the unit as a whole. Differing team members will not all see things the same way, nor will they prefer to work in the same way – so the door may be open to dysfunction. The obvious remedy would be the involvement of a suitable team leader who not only understands the differences between the members, but who also has the leadership capability to maximize their positive contributions while minimizing possible negative disagreements.


It is important to remember that, when focusing on innovation, “one shoe does not fit all”. As we move through the levels of an organization we realize that different people will have different responsibilities and perspectives with respect to the innovative process. To successfully integrate “innovation” into an organization, it is critically important to initially determine the form and scope that innovation will take, and then to ensure that a suitable match exists between the specific innovative requirements and the people who will be involved. This requires that the participants have an appropriate technical foundation, sufficient problem solving capability and cognitive scope and a suitable innovative thinking style.

 However, just because a person has the capability to be innovative does not mean that they will apply themselves. Please take a moment to continue in our discussion by reading our follow-up article “Can You Identify an Innovative Thinker”?, where we go one step farther to identify the key personality characteristics that are needed to ensure that innovative people will actually perform.

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