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Outsmarting Your Brain

Look around you. Unless you’re in the middle of a remote wooded glen (and if so how are you reading this article), dozens of appliances just feet from you are buzzing with electricity. The most efficient among them? Your brain.

The brain is an amazing contraption, Peter Koen (Stevens Institute of Technology) tells us. And despite near instantaneous decisions to pattern recognition to artistic genius, the brain’s most impressive feat might be its efficiency. The brain runs on just 40 watts — about your average light bulb.

This efficiency comes at a cost, though. Instead of actually analyzing the stimuli we’re actually presented with and processing it on a first-come first-serve basis, the brain instead takes an immense amount of shortcuts. Evolutionarily, this is a great move: almost always it’s a good idea to run if you see something that’s striped like a tiger and has four legs.

In today’s world, though, these ingrained patterns, or “schemas,” as Peter tells us, get in the way of seeing new breakthrough ideas. We get stuck “seeing” the same patterns, even when the world around us is changing.

Luckily, even our tiny pea brains have managed to come up with some strategies for getting around these pesky obstacles. By forcing ourselves to look at things through certain lenses, we can see past the patterns that may have been disguising the next big thing.

To start, Koen recommends doing something counterintuitive to most businesses people. Instead of looking across broad areas for new opportunities and applying strict criteria, (i.e., what is a new market we could enter with our existing three products), he suggests flipping this around. Starting narrow-focused with broad criteria, he argues, actually yields better results. (Example: what could help new schoolteachers organize their grading better?)

Even with these parameters, most new innovations tend to fall into two main categories:

Higher performance: Is there a way to create a product in a category that’s better than any other option? These solutions usually apply to super users and ardent fans of a category, and often these groups are willing to shell out big bucks for something that’s truly better.

Lower cost: pretty self-explanatory, but this one is deceptively powerful. Finding a way to radically reduce the cost of a task or product, even if it’s doing it an entirely different way, can open up a whole new market of people that simply weren’t potential buyers before.

A good starting place for these ideas? Other industries. If you make car brakes, check out the airplane industry to see what they’re using for materials. If you’re a media company, see if you can draw inspiration from a manufacturing plant for coordinating complex but recurring group activities.

At the end of the day, we aren’t able to bump our brains up from 40 watts to 80 watts (and survive, at least). Until then, finding out ways to understand the psychological roadblocks that may obscure our vision and their workarounds is a key part of innovating.

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