How to Innovate

In companies flush with cash, investors demand that excess funds are either invested in new growth initiatives or disbursed through handsome dividends. CEOs are feeling the pressure and are desperate to find investment opportunities.

However, inventing a slightly better blender or a fancier paper clip isn’t going to generate the returns needed to satisfy shareholders. True innovation, the kind that disrupts and revolutionizes, is what’s needed.

Practicing mindfulness might not come to mind when one thinks of innovation. After all, a common misperception is that it’s nothing more than sitting down, closing your eyes, and trying to stop thinking -- hardly the behavior anyone, much less the CEO, wants to encourage in employees.

However, mindfulness isn’t about shutting off thoughts. Instead, it’s about breaking old, unproductive patterns of thinking. Practicing mindfulness clears out those patterns and creates space for fresh ideas to take their place.

Steve Jobs, a mindfulness practitioner himself, challenged his employees to think innovatively. He pushed them to revolutionize familiar products. One notable challenge he gave his engineers: devise a phone that needed only one button. Boggled by the challenge, his staff struggled. After all, a phone seemed to require at least ten times as many buttons, 1 for each number.

Such a difficult task could only be achieved by using divergent thinking, the process by which we devise as many novel solutions as possible. Throwing open the doors to imagination, mindfulness bolsters practitioners’ capacity for divergent thinking. The practice of open monitoring (instructions below) has been shown to significantly increase one’s capacity for idea generation.

Once a batch of potential solutions has been created, one must evaluate these ideas to find the most valuable one and develop it, engaging in the process known as convergent thinking.

Mindfulness can help with convergent thinking as well. In one study, all participants were given a test requiring insightful solutions. One group practiced mindfulness while the other had a language lesson. All of the students were given a second chance to fix the problems they had done wrong. Ultimately, the mindfulness group scored significantly higher than the control group, demonstrating improved convergent thinking.

With cash piling up, companies need to innovate. By bolstering both sides of the creative process with divergent and convergent thinking, mindfulness practice offers a path forward for companies uncertain as to how to grow.

If you’re looking for fresh thinking, try practicing mindfulness daily for two weeks. Discover what new ideas bubble up!

Open Monitoring Practice

  1. Find a quiet place to sit for ten minutes each day. Close your eyes. Sit with your spine straight, away from the back of the chair if possible, and your head upright but your shoulders relaxed.  

  2. For the next ten minutes, pay attention to the physical sensations that come and go in your body, as well as the thoughts and emotions that come and go in your mind, and any sounds that you might hear.

  3. There’s no need to try to make anything happen, to stop anything from happening, or to judge yourself for whatever you are or are not doing. Just observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they come up and then move on.  

  4. When you end your practice, tell yourself to bring this nonjudgmental awareness of yourself and your environment into the rest of your day.