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How Can Mindfulness
(Not Tools)
Unlock Innovation?

Challenging Thinking Series

Challenging Thinking is a series of Think Pieces—essays, videos, and other content—that ask and answer bold questions about leadership. While the leadership-related topics vary widely, each piece will inspire novel thinking.
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The answer to innovation is not in the latest tools but in something more basic, and maybe, more challenging. The answer lies in what is called the Beginner’s Mind.

By Ryan Heinl

Thinking Points: How Can Mindfulness Unlock Innovation?Innovation, it’s a nut we all want to crack. It holds the promise of untold riches via disruptive new technologies and solutions to problems that no one has yet been able to solve. In the pursuit of this buried treasure, we have cooked up all manner of tools and techniques to unlock our mystical powers of creativity.

We employ design thinking and human-centered design. We develop personas, do user testing, use crowd-sourcing, iterate on a design again and again. We spend hours poring over case studies of companies and entire industries disrupted by changes in technology, trying to distill the wisdom that will lead us to the Promised Land.

But when you boil everything down, the best and most successful innovations are simple and obvious in hind sight. And most of the time, the problems those innovations address are equally front and center in our lives.

Take Instagram, for example. Millions of people were taking pictures on their smart phones, but had no easy way to share them. Creating a networked photo sharing app right on your phone seems like an obvious solution. So why did so many people miss this? Why don’t we clearly see the problem and the potential solution?

The answer lies not in that latest creativity-inducing fad but in something more basic and, in some ways, more challenging. The answer lies in what is called the Beginner’s Mind.

A good illustration of this sort of mindset is what I came to experience recently on a typical Saturday morning. I had slept in a bit and went downstairs to find my son sitting on our couch intently playing a video game called Destiny. This is a game into which I’ve (unfortunately) sunk hours of my life and have achieved all sorts of new levels and weaponry (the spoils of reaching greater heights in the game).

And as I sat there quietly watching my son play, it occurred to me that he wasn’t “doing it right.” Then another thought occurred to me: Not doing it right? What would make me think that? And then I realized that I’ve been a gamer for 30 years and during that time I’ve developed a set of heuristics that I apply to pretty much every video game I play. This set of rules has been forged over thousands of experiences playing different games. I’ve trained myself (or possibly been trained by the games) to focus on getting to the end of the level, fulfilling the quest, completing the mission.

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My son, on the other hand, had none of that baggage to shape what he did inside of the game. He didn’t play by the rules. There was no drive to follow the route laid out by the game designers. He explored different parts of the game and found things I never would have. He failed (died) a lot too, but that didn’t bother him because he had no expectations. He was in no hurry to get to the end of the level. He was just…playing.

And that’s when it hit me: He had a Beginner’s Mind. Unfettered by 30 years of playing video games, experience that narrowed my view of how to play considerably, he was wide open to the possibilities. He saw things just as they were. Daniel Kahneman (winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics) writes about this phenomenon in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, in which he argues that most of the time we use intuitive thinking to evaluate things. This type of thinking is, of course, shaped by the collective experiences and knowledge we have acquired and it’s likely been key to our survival as a species. It’s also, as Kahneman points out, full of biases. Thus, the “he’s not doing it right” conclusion I initially drew while watching my son. The problem is that this evolutionary marvel, which allows for efficient thinking, also puts up blinders to possibilities.

So, how do we break free from this cognitive cage and find the open field of possibility? The answer lies in mindfulness practice and the deliberate cultivation of the Beginner’s Mind.

Clearing the lens before you look to the stars

There’s a Zen proverb that captures the crux of the issue well. It says, “Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish your own opinion.” This is especially relevant when it comes to innovation and we would be wise to heed it.

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Before we pull out our box of design tricks and tools for an innovation event, let’s focus on something more basic. Something that can help us cultivate this Beginner’s Mind I’m writing about here. As Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, this moment we are in is completely new; right now has never been before. Yet, we bring so much with us to the current moment. Years of experience with things that have worked and not worked has left us unable to see things as if for the first time.

The expertise we carry with us leaves no room for novelty or new possibilities within familiar situations. In the Beginner’s Mind, there are infinite possibilities. Just like my son playing that video game. Just like the two guys from California who set up and rented out air mattresses in their apartment and later started a revolution in the lodging industry—Airbnb.

When you have deep domain knowledge you need to be disciplined in your awareness of how you are shutting out possibilities and ideas, because you may believe they’ve been tried before or because your experience suggests they won’t work.

The start-up world is littered with examples of businesses that did things that had been tried before. Airbnb is a great example. How many vacation rental concepts were there before Airbnb took off? A great many. All the experts told the Airbnb founders their idea would never work, or at least it wouldn’t be a big success. After all, it had been tried before. Now their business has a multi-billion dollar market cap and they have changed the way the world thinks about lodging.

Context always matters, of course, and to truly appreciate the context of the current moment you must cultivate and practice the Beginner’s Mind. Who else does this? Companies like Google, SalesForce.com, Patagonia, Aetna, Apple, and General Mills. Business icons like Bill Ford, Sergei Brin, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and many others practice the methods that are required to cultivate this type of perspective.

3 things you can start doing today to cultivate a Beginner’s Mind

If you want to begin reaping the benefits of the Beginner’s Mind, there are steps you can begin taking immediately. Here are three you can try right now:

  1. Start practicing mindfulness: When I say mindfulness, I mean learning to be present in the moment and being aware of how you are reacting to things as they are happening.

    Are you resistant, irritated, or dismissive when you hear a suggestion or a new idea? A great strategy for dealing with these feelings is High-Resolution Perception, which I described in a blog I wrote in 2016. To develop this type of perception, there are actually lots of different practices you could adopt, but the simplest and most well-known is meditation.

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    In its most basic form, meditation means sitting quietly and focusing your mind on your breathing. I won’t spend a bunch of time here discussing meditation and how to do it, but the key point is that you want to dedicate some practice time to bringing your mind into the present moment and being aware of what you are thinking and feeling in each moment. However you choose to do that is up to you and there are many available resources to help you get started, including apps such as Head Space, Calm, and 10 percent Happier.

    I can see you scoff as you read this. I get it. But you don’t have to sit on a pillow or burn incense to practice meditation. All you are doing by meditating is exercising your will over your mind. You focus on your breath. Every time your mind wanders you bring it back. It’s like doing arm curls at the gym to strengthen your biceps, but instead of using dumbbells to build your will, you’re using your focus and attention.
  2. Pay attention to your reactions: When you start to really focus on it, you’ll discover that your mind is, for better or worse, a “thoughting” machine. It just throws out thoughts. Sometimes they’re related to the current moment, sometimes they seemingly come out of nowhere.

    When it comes to innovation, though, you want to pay attention to how and when your mind starts to narrow the possibilities. Think about how you might interact with an old friend. You’ve known him or her forever, and you have some developed assumptions about who they are and how they act. When you talk with your friend you bring those unconscious assumptions to the interaction.

    Imagine for a moment how that interaction might go and how your assumptions determine what you say and how your words might make your friend feel. Now imagine that you approach that interaction with a totally fresh perspective, and without assumptions or expectations. How might that interaction go differently? Might he or she feel more appreciated, heard, and understood? How might you have shut down or shut out what your friend might have said in the previous mode of interacting?

    The same is true with business ideas. You need to get good at understanding how you react to things in automatic, unconscious ways. You don’t have to do a darn thing about it at first, just get good at spotting those “this won’t work because…” thoughts. That will be a critically important first step.
  3. Start to practice being supremely open: Now that you are aware of your initial reactions and are cognizant that you may be too quick to be dismissive (“shut it down”) or closed-minded (“not going to work”), stay with it for just a bit longer.

    Resist the urge to be dismissive or skeptical. Really look more closely at the possibilities of an opportunity and put aside any assumptions that may lead you to believe there is only a narrow probability of success.

    I guarantee the more you do this, the more you’ll find you’ll begin to think differently about ideas or concepts you’ve seen before. You don’t have to accept anything or do anything, just extend your open-mindedness for about 10 minutes longer than you might otherwise. And during those 10 minutes, really give the idea a chance. Consciously dismiss the assumptions popping up in your “thoughting machine” and really open your mind to the possibility that, yes, this idea could work.

    Explore it fully, and then let all your practical concerns come rushing in. I promise the more you do this, the more you will create the space you need to see things with a Beginner’s Mind.

Develop habits

My call to action to you is to get started today, and then dedicate time each day to cultivating this Beginner’s Mind. Be present in the moment. Be aware of what you are thinking, and how you are reacting when people on your team introduce new ideas. Are you supremely open? Or are you rushing to judge their ideas based on your experience and expectations?

There is a time for both, of course, but the latter is rarely the best place to start. The more you flex this muscle the more you will become aware of how your “thoughting” machine is shaping your perception of the possibilities.

Ryan Heinl is a senior product manager for DDI who works with lots of great companies around the world to align their people with their business strategy. He is an entrepreneur, writer, chef, Crossfitter, mindfulness junkie and occasional yogi who travels the world in search of the perfect moment (and secretly hopes he won’t find it).

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