Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Minds Limit (And Extend) Innovation

All innovation is dependent on the limitations of the human mind. We are unable to change and improve that which we cannot perceive and understand. As Canadian scholar Alexander Manu noted, “An individual’s or organization’s inability to recognize the meaning and potential of signals—be they in emerging technologies or emergent behavior—comes from the limits of their rational boundaries.” Our minds consistently retreat to the known and familiar.

One fascinating example was provided by Schoemaker & Day. The early morning hours of December 7, 1941 had been exceptionally busy for the captain of the destroyer USS Ward. Just hours earlier the ship had detected an enemy submarine moving toward Pearl Harbor. Releasing its depth charges, the crew of the Ward had sunk the submarine. While sailing toward Pearl Harbor, the captain could hear muffled explosions coming from the mainland. Turning to his lieutenant commander, the captain said, "I guess they are blasting the new road from Pearl Harbor to Honolulu." Even though his ship had engaged a foreign submarine only hours before, the captain made sense of the exploding sounds by reverting to his peacetime mind-set and completely failed to perceive the hostilities that lay just ahead.

How do we expand our sensemaking abilities? Education, experience, interaction with others, intentionally trying on new ideas, and developing multiple perspectives all help. Another important way is to ask God to “open the eyes of our heart.” In Ephesians 1:17-18 (NKJV) we read the prayerful admonition, “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints…” There can be no clearer vision than that given by God.

Dr. Gary Oster
Regent University
School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship


Innovation, sensemaking, leadership, institutional learning, perception


Holy Bible, New King James Version (1982). Nashville: Thomas Holman Publishers.
Manu, A. (2007). The Imagination challenge. Berkeley: New Riders.
Prange, G. (1982). At dawn we slept. New York: Penguin Books.
Schoemaker, P. & Day, G. (Spring 2009). How to make sense of weak signals. MIT Sloan Management Review, 50(3), 81-89.