What Makes Innovation So Difficult?

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

James A. Schlueter


When you see an innovation, it often looks pretty simple. In fact, most people will comment, “I could have done that.” But the fact is they didn’t. Neither did all the other people who said, “I could have done that.”

What is it about the person that can say, “I did that”? How are they able to see or feel something and improve upon it, while the rest of us tend to simply adapt to overly complicated, inefficient modes of operation?

Psychologists that have studied these issues have found our biggest problem is our prior knowledge. They have found that prior knowledge, which is the foundation on which we have largely built our careers, becomes our insurmountable obstacle to fostering innovation. Problems that require innovation tend to require solutions that are outside the problem solver’s normal frame of reference. Inevitably, such problems quickly trigger the problem solver’s prior knowledge. This seems like a perfectly logical and productive reaction. However, in problems that require innovation, there is no guarantee that problem solver’s prior knowledge will be either relevant or helpful to issues requiring insight[i].

In fact, in most cases where the solution requires innovation, the problem solver’s prior knowledge is likely within the core of the problem itself and needs to be set aside. This is a significant and complicated struggle we humans face when confronted with these kinds of situations. Several studies have demonstrated that the prior concepts, skills, and dispositions that have led to one’s success, in fact, blind us to the potential solutions of the problems we face.

Most of us have been confronted by the nine-dot problem either in a management training seminar or with a friend over a bar bet. The task in this puzzle is to connect all the dots in a set of nine dots laid out in a 3x3 pattern using only 4 lines without lifting the pen from the paper or retracing any line (see the figure below).

Click on the picture to discover the solution.

(if the image link fails: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvUD_v_f9qQ)

It’s an incredibly simple task. After all, there can only be a limited number of solutions. And yet, less than 5% of college undergraduates in experimental settings have been able to successfully complete the task in time limited tests[ii]. Kershaw and Ohlsson[iii] from the University of IL Department of Psychology noted that the nine-dot problem is most likely an unfamiliar problem for most people’s everyday life. Subsequently, Kershaw and Olsson questioned what are the sources of the difficulties people face with this kind of problem? Their question gets to the heart of the question of what factors block most people from being able to take that step to deliver innovative solutions to their everyday work issues.

Kershaw and Olsson identified several prior knowledge issues that create difficulties to people faced with solving the nine-dot problem:

1. Staying within the framework. From our childhood we are taught to identify the framework of the picture (even if one isn’t actually there) and to stay within the lines. Thus, going outside the frame runs contrary to our prior knowledge.

2. Connecting the dots. We learned to connect the dots growing up. Subsequently, turning on a non-dot point is yet again another cheat.

3. Crossing lines. Similar to points 1 and 2 above, crossing lines is programmed into us from an early age as an error.

4. Picking up interior dots. Drawing lines that pick up the interior dots that do not connect to the perceived framework picture is another problematic behavior given much of our prior learning.

The lesson here is that prior knowledge can interject biases that are counterproductive to resolving a problem. Kershaw and Olsson concluded, “The presentation of a problem can interact with prior knowledge, thus resulting in an incorrect and unhelpful encoding of the problem.”

What’s interesting about this problem is that even after some people have been shown the solution, when asked to solve the puzzle a few days later, they have difficulty coming up with the resolution. As an example, you just watched the video and saw the solution. Can you replicate the solution right now? Try it.

The lesson here is that when confronted with new challenges, it is incredibly easy to become fixated on “rules” learned through the prior experiences. The term “think outside the box” has become an overused cliche, but in the nine-dot puzzle it is indeed what you need to do. The lesson here is when confronting problems that require insight, your prior knowledge will often present preconceived mental constructs that can block your success.

Kershaw and Olsson suggested that people need to learn to relax their preconceived notions about how to approach challenges because they can easily get stuck on trivial problems that are not relevant to the task. They noted that when facing these kinds of issues, we need to “understand unhelpful interactions between problems and prior knowledge, the impasses that result, and how people overcome those impasses by relaxing the inappropriate constraints.”

These are the tools and lessons that we apply at Effective Health Systems when addressing workflow automation and intelligent augmentation. We step back from the traditional “rules” of the organization and ask the basic question, what is it exactly that we need to accomplish? And then we begin with a clean slate. Our orientation allows us to create clean and effective workflow solutions for our clients. We work with their subject matter experts to understand what their critical success criteria are, and what tools they have available to achieve their goals. Once we know what decision points are required and what level of expertise is needed to resolve an issue, we can plot out the most effective flow of information and data to move the objective from A to Z.

Bottom-line, innovation isn’t hard. But it does require turning down the noise associated with all your prior knowledge. That prior knowledge as often as not can set up unnecessary roadblocks and obstacles to your success. The EHS team is here to assist you in these efforts.


[i] Ohlesson, S. (1984) Restructureing revisited II: An information processing theory of restructuring and insight. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 25, 117-129 Ohlesson, S. (1992). Information processing explanations of insight and related phenomena. In M. Keane and K Gilhooly (eds), (vol 1, - 1-44), London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf. Wiley, J. (1998). Expertise as a mental set: The effects of domain knowledge on creative problem solving. Memory & Cognition, 26(4), 16-730. [ii] Lung, C.T., & Dominowski, R.L. (1985) Effects of strategy instructions and practice on nine-dot problem solving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 11(4), 804-811. McGregor, J.N., Ormerod, T.C., & Chronicle, E.P. (2001). Information-processing and insight: A process model of performance on nine-dot and related problems. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 27(1), 176-201. [iii] Kershaw, Trina C. and Ohlsson, Stellan, “Training for Insight: The Case of the Nine-Dot Problem”.

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