- Its brand? No, that’s well-utilized and appreciated.
- Its customers’ loyalty. Some would argue for that one, but it’s not a pervasive issue.
- Its distribution network? Not really.
- Its cash? No, CFOs take care of that.
It’s their employees’ cognitive surplus. The stuff between their ears that never gets enough air time. Which is a significant miss. Scientists estimate the memory capacity for the human brain to be roughly 2.5 petabytes.
Clay Shirky’s latest book, Cognitive Surplus, examines the potential for tapping this surplus. He argues that the rise of the participative web is reducing our time spent watching television. We can apply this reserve of thinking toward helping with all manner of objectives. He cites Wikipedia as an example of this.
The same concept holds true for organizations. We all have our “regular” jobs, and the paycheck certainly expects, and rewards, focus on that. Indeed, we need people to specialize to scale an organization in the market.
But that’s not the end of the story, is it? We’re more than our job titles. Let’s understand the opportunity and how to seize it.
Our Cognitive Surplus
“Cognitive surplus” is a good term for grasping the concept of underutilized brain power. But if you asked someone to define it, you’d likely get a hazy answer. “You know, the part of the brain we don’t exercise.”
There is a better answer to this, and it’s important to know it in the context of innovation. We have three components to our cognitive surplus:
I’m using the framework developed by University of Michigan professor Scott Page, from his excellent book The Difference. Our cognitive toolkit has three elements.
Knowledge: When one thinks of cognitive surplus, this component is the one that most readily comes to mind. As in, how Wikipedia was built. People providing their knowledge. And indeed, we never are able to sufficiently capture this. The knowledge management movement is all about improving everyone’s access to knowledge. And knowledge is a cornerstone of our cognitive surplus.
Perspectives: Each of us views the world in a unique way. Page’s explanation is a good one: how we map reality to an internal language. You might see a problem as a logistics issue, while I see it as a cost management concern. And those kinds of differences in perspectives are quite valuable. An example from Edward De Bono illustrates the value of applying different perspectives (pdf link).
“For many years physiologists could not understand the purpose of the long loops in the kidney tubules: it was assumed that the loops had no special function and were a relic of the way the kidney had evolved. Then one day an engineer looked at the loops and at once recognized that they could be part of a counter-current multiplier, a well-known engineering device for increasing the concentration of liquids. In this instance, a fresh look from outside provided an answer to something that had been a puzzle for along time.”
Emphases are mine to highlight the different fields of the people looking at the question. The engineer brought a different perspective to the analysis.
Heuristics: How do you go about solving a problem? We all have our own ways. Start with your best guess, iterate incrementally back-n-forth off it. Sequentially go through a series of options. Try one thing, then do the exact opposite. Et cetera. These methods we use are a critical part of the cognitive surplus. Having many minds apply different problem-solving methods is incredibly valuable for finding good solutions in a timely fashion.
These three parts of our cognitive toolkits are each valuable in their own way for advancing innovation. Let’s understand why.
We Get Stuck on Local Optima
“Wow, I really need to bounce this problem off somebody.” Ever have that feeling? We all have.
Despite our prodigious cognitive toolkits, we can’t be expert and perfect on solving all challenges. It’s just not possible; the immense variety of problems and opportunities is too great in this infinite world. Rather, when it comes to individual efforts to solving challenges, we each create our own local optimum (i.e. best solution we can devise).
As each of us applies our cognitive toolkits to a challenge, we will end up on individually optimum solutions.In the graphic above, there are four potential solutions, each its own utility for the problem at hand. Some ideas are better than others at the outset.
And this is good. It’s a starting point. The solutions landscape will look different depending on who gets involved in the process. After the initial process of soliciting ideas, the work of building on others’ ideas is the critical activity for a top idea to emerge based on different knowledge, perspectives and heuristics.
Key here is sourcing the cognitive surplus to achieve a solution greater than each of our own local optima.
Diverse Perspectives through Interaction
Let’s return to the three elements of this underutilized asset, employees’ cognitive surplus: knowledge, perspectives, heuristics.
All need interaction to be surfaced and applied in context.The knowledge to address a new challenge isn’t likely to be recorded anywhere. It’s the tacit knowledge you want to get at. Perspectives are vital, but can only be applied in the context of the issue. They don’t really have a life outside of a specific need. There is no recording of perspectives to apply to a problem – it’s all about interacting. And heuristics are similar. Methodologies to apply to a problem can be recorded, but we’re all coded differently. Someone has to actually apply those problem-solving methodologies.
Given these requirements, what are the keys to getting innovation results from our cognitive surplus?
1. Seek out diversity in innovation efforts
What’s the easiest thing for us to when seeking a solution to a problem? Call on those we know. This is *absolutely* fine for the more basic problems. It’s efficient. The local optima will address the need. It also minimizes conflict, which is icky for a lot of us.
But time and again, studies have shown that access to diverse inputs generates superior solutions for more challenging problems and opportunities. Which means the standard operating procedure of of seeking solutions from a tried-n-true set of cohorts is fundamentally limiting the generation of top solutions. This has a logical effect on the ability to generate innovations needed for a vibrant organization.
2. Focus the innovation effort
Tacit knowledge, perspectives and heuristics do not work in a vacuum. As in, apply a perspective to…what? Use heuristic problem solving to address…what? To use those cognitive tools, a specific situation is required. We can then put our cognitive toolkits to work.
That’s the reason for creating innovation focus. A while ago I noted that people on average have 15,000 thoughts a day. The point of that post to create “constraints” around an innovation effort. These constraints are the the basis for creating various local optima in an innovation effort.
3. Use social graph for communication, not collaboration
Cognitive diversity means bringing widely different cognitive toolkits to bear on a challenge. However, our natural tendencies are to associate with others based on: similarity, proximity and prior acquaintance. This is very natural very human and excellent for coordinated efforts on work to be done.
But it doesn’t address the need to bring people who aren’t similar to us into the solution finding process. With social software, we can leverage each person’s social graph. That’s terrific. But the emphasis needs to be on tapping the social graph to spread the word about an innovation challenge. A communication activity.
However, the value of social software comes in facilitating ephemeral connections among cognitively diverse people. That’s the emphasis of an innovation effort. Creating those non-strong tie interactions requires some “push” from senior executives (for a specific initiative or for an ongoing program of innovation). There are ways a software platform can aid this, such as understanding people’s “interest graphs”. Also, surfacing people’s reputation scores to make up for the missing built-in trust and appraisal embedded in one’s existing social graph.
Make It Happen
Employees’ cognitive surplus is the most valuable, most under-utilized asset organizations have. The understanding of what elicits top innovation in terms of our cognitive toolkits, and modern social platforms that facilitate this work, are ushering in a new era of innovation for those organizations that understand the opportunity.