By: Alison Escalante
May 18, 2021
When businesses don’t innovate, they shrink. That’s why organizations are bringing in speakers and consultants to create an agile work culture that fosters innovation. But there’s one group of experts no-one is consulting. These experts spend years of their lives absorbed in innovative behaviors, and their creativity is unsurpassed.
Anyone who wants to sustain innovation, either individually or in an organization, needs to start paying attention to children. Yes, kids. If that claim is surprising, recall that every single one of us starts out as a child. And children universally show innovative thinking and behaviors at the youngest ages, both alone and in groups. By the time we reach adulthood, we have all spent years of our childhoods training to be innovators by practicing the fundamental skills for creative problem-solving.
That means that training teams to be more innovative is not the story of a deficiency to be corrected, but a memory to be unlocked. To create a culture of innovation, we simply need to remember and reenact what we did naturally as kids.
Top innovators start as kids
When Terry Jones was a kid, he and his buddy built a go-kart out of two-by-fours, a lawnmower engine, and extra curtain rods they bummed off the local hardware store. He also had a chemistry lab in the basement where he ran experiments and generally blew things up. Later, he disrupted the travel industry when he became the innovator behind Travelocity and Kayak.
Jim “Hondo” Geurts was always trying something new as a child. He began playing the piano at two-years-old and could read music before he could read a book. But he was always more interested in improvisation than in playing the music on the page. Now, he is the Undersecretary of the Navy and has spent the last four years creating a culture of innovation at the Pentagon.
It’s easy to think that established innovators have stories like these. But the truth is that they are not unique: all the other kids were improvising too.
Kids are natural innovators
By the time they are toddlers, children are experimenting with everything. That’s why kids are so much work, because kids are constantly messing with things. Humans have spent 99% of our history living in small tribal groups, where survival depended on creative problem solving. And that’s why innovative thinking is universal in young children, because we all need to be able to do it.
If you haven’t spent an hour with a three-year-old lately, you may have forgotten how creative they are. Kids tinker… all the time. They get into everything and explore their environment with fresh eyes. They accept nothing as given and test every situation, again and again. And that leads them to put things together in non-sensical ways, creating endless novel combinations until they find one that meets their need.
That’s how Geurts defines one kind of innovation: putting two things together in a new way. He loves to tell the story of the toilet brush company that invented the artificial Christmas tree by repurposing their manufacturing line. That’s right: the first fake Christmas tree was basically a bunch of toilet brushes stuck together.
Innovation takes courage
Children explore without limits and with little fear. Every two-year-old can fly… until they hit the floor and learn their limit. And then they challenge those limits and change their environment until it works for them. Where we may see a chair for sitting, a child sees a jungle gym. We may think we know that feet are for walking, but children understand that feet are also for grabbing objects and putting them in mouths.
Jones believes “creativity is thinking up new things and innovation is doing them. Innovation is putting an idea to work.” Which would explain why my son used the expensive new meat thermometer to create a kabob out of clementines. He made his idea work.
Children are serious about their independence. By age 9 months, most kids insist on feeding themselves, unless their parents refuse to let them. And one of the first phrases kids learn to say is, “I do it myself!” That independent thinking is a critical step in the process of innovation.
Jones believes that courage and self-reliance are absolutely essential in the innovative process. “Corporations don’t like failure and they don’t like wasting money. So they drive out experimentation and risk-taking,” says Jones. That’s why his book Disruption Off is all about finding the courage to take risks.
Until the world teaches kids differently, which can happen at surprisingly young ages, kids attack problems with ferocity. They keep at it because they believe they will solve it. Parents may doubt this, pointing out all the times their kids fuss until an adult does it for them. But making use of the other people around you to achieve your goal IS a form of problem solving. And kids can be very creative when they’ve decided to use an adult as their solution.
Innovators cannot do it alone
Geurts took a key lesson from his years in the special forces: invest in relationship before you need it. He believes innovation cannot happen without other people, and Jones agrees with him. Kids know that too, which is why they look for connection with others constantly. Just try ignoring a young child and see how persistently they try to get your attention.
In fact, that kind of constant interaction is one way that kids elicit real-time feedback, which Jones believes is a key factor in rapid innovation. “One of the big changes in innovation right now is that you are constantly connected to your customer,” says Jones. “We’re getting feedback, every second, every keystroke.”
Kids also understand another key feature of innovative groups. “Kids form self-organizing teams,” Jones emphasizes. He learned this at wilderness camp as a child and later as a camp counselor where he took long canoe trips. “On those trips we learned that everybody has to pull their own weight in the canoe,” says Jones. But “one guy might not be as strong and might not paddle as hard.” And that’s when the kids would look around at each other and put their different strengths to work. “We’d say you seem to know how to get wood, and you seem to know how to cook, and you put up a good tent, and you’re strong enough to carry this when I’m not.”
That’s where Jones learned to value diversity. “You’ll find the most creative teams are the one which are composed of people who are quite different from each other. One person can make all the difference in the team, because they have that idea that turns your lame company into a superstar. I think diversity of opinion, and view and race and gender and creed makes a team so much stronger.”
Geurts agrees and emphasizes diversity as a key goal for the Navy. His own childhood helped him appreciate difference when he learned to connect with new people every time his family moved. And his experience with a neighborhood skateboarding craze in California demonstrates how kids form self-organizing teams and how kids find a way. Because he was no good at skateboarding, he found a way to be an essential part of the group by building the skate ramps. He tinkered until he perfected the design, and then started building them for kids all over the neighborhood.
Remembering how to innovate
If we all knew how to behave like innovators as kids, what’s holding us back now? Jones thinks education and organizations drive it out of us, and Geurts argues that the bureaucracies we live and work in “constrain choices to control risk.”
But neurobiology may also play a part. In The Art Of The Impossible, Steven Kotler writes that children have more interconnection between their neurons but less organization in their brains as compared to adults. Children also spend a lot of time daydreaming and playing, which activates the brain’s default mode network (DMN), the place where wildly creative insights come from. “When young brains go hunting for remote associations between ideas, there’s more to find,” Kotler writes.
As we get older, our brains get more organized and the executive network in the brain gets stronger. That means our ideas are a lot more realistic, but we stop playing around with that innovative tinkering we did as kids.
The good news is that those skills we practiced as kids are not lost to us. The key to unlocking them is to activate our DMNs, and we can do that by letting our minds wander, daydreaming at work, and pursuing diverse interests. But the most reliable way to unlock our innovation is to get good at entering the flow state, where we lose track of time and become fully immersed in what we are doing.