What Makes Innovation So Hard?

James A. Schlueter

(This blog was first posted on 12/18/2020. However, the point is still very relevant. For example, try completing the puzzle now without checking the answer. Most likely you failed. Read the blog to find out why.)

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

What is it about the person saying, “I did that”? How can they see or feel something and improve upon it while the rest of us tend to 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, the foundation on which we have built our careers, becomes our insurmountable obstacle to fostering innovation. Problems that require innovation tend to demand solutions outside the problem solver’s standard frame of reference. Inevitably, such problems quickly trigger the problem solver’s prior knowledge. It seems like a perfectly logical and productive reaction, right? However, in problems that require innovation, there is no guarantee that problem solvers’ 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 situations. Several studies have demonstrated that the prior concepts, skills, and dispositions that have led to one’s success blind us to the potential solutions to 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 four 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:

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 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 unfamiliar in most people’s everyday life. Subsequently, Kershaw and Olsson questioned 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 for 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 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.”

Interestingly, even after people are shown the solution, they have difficulty coming up with the resolution a short time later. As an example, you just watched the video and saw the solution. Can you replicate the answer 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 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 quickly get stuck on trivial problems that are not relevant to the task. They noted that when facing these 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 fundamental 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. Prior knowledge 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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