Puzzling Perspectives on Innovation

A completed puzzle depicts a map of the world, with several pieces missing.
The puzzle was fully complete at 7:30am and by 8:30am pieces were taken. Photo supplied by Dr. John Conrad.

Written by Dr. John Conrad, Director, Innovation and Business Engagement

There are three types of perspectives when it comes to Innovation: the puzzle makers; the puzzle watchers; and the puzzle breakers. Over the last number of years outside our office we have had our purple table with a puzzle on it for bystanders to work on in their free time. Now that we are back on campus the puzzle table has been busy, and I was reminded that people respond differently to seeing the puzzle.

The puzzle makers: These people get joy out of just working on the puzzle, whether they only have time to add one piece or spend hours working on it. They are willing to work on it alone or in a group. It also does not seem to bother them that overall progress is not being made. (Due to the puzzle breakers). In innovation work these are the idea generators – they are most excited by the problem solving, the ideation, and the prototyping.

The puzzle watchers: These people watch the progress of the puzzle, comment on the work of the puzzle makers, and will join either the puzzle makers or puzzle breakers if asked to. In other words, they are curious but often take a bystander role until there is a social influence that forces them to choose a side. Interestingly these people will often become great champions of the cause once they choose a side and can often make the difference in the outcome. In innovation work these are often the validators or socializers – they are excited by the social connections and group involvement attached to innovation. With the proper incentives the puzzle watchers can accelerate the work of the puzzle makers and breakers.

The puzzle breakers: These people take apart the puzzle regardless of its state of completion. They will either just break it apart or often will also take pieces away. Like the puzzle makers they will do this alone or within a group. In the world of innovation these are the active resistors to change.

So how do these observations of how people interact with a puzzle relate to your approach to work? Let’s replace the puzzle with e-mail. Puzzle makers respond to e-mail in a timely fashion regardless of who the sender is. They just want to move things along. The puzzle watchers will respond to e-mail if there is a social return to doing so. Does not need to be a large social benefit to move them. Puzzle breakers often don’t respond to e-mail even with follow up or other significant incentives.

So here is a take-away. The puzzle makers and the puzzle breakers will likely just keep doing what they are doing unless there is a large incentive not to continue those behaviours. The puzzle watchers require much less incentive to move, so let’s be sure we are nudging those puzzle watchers to the puzzle maker side of the equation. Us puzzle makers need your transformative power to spur sustainable innovation.

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