Inspire Series: Innovative Thinker Susan Robertson

  • Categories:


  • Date:

    July 1, 2021

Inspire Series: Innovative Thinker Susan Robertson


Welcome back to the Inspire series, launched in 2018 as a way to tell stories behind the talent at Wray Ward. We are excited to bring Inspire back in 2021, this time venturing beyond our walls to capture intimate portraits of people whose passion and influence are shaping the home and building category.

In our first installment, we covered Erin Gallagher, chief of insights at the Research Institute for Cooking & Kitchen Intelligence (RICKI). This time, meet Susan Robertson, a world-renowned creative thinking expert and innovation strategist. With more than 20 years of experience in both academic and corporate roles, Susan empowers teams and organizations to more nimbly adapt to change by transforming thinking from “why we can’t” to “how might we?”

As an instructor on innovation and applied creativity at Harvard, Susan brings a scientific foundation to the application and development of human creativity. Susan’s practical approach to innovation has been embraced by dozens of the world’s largest brands including Clorox, Georgia-Pacific, HGTV, P&G, Kellogg’s, Pepsico, Bank of America, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Wells Fargo, Marriott and Chase.

Susan is also a member of The Cul-de-Sac, Wray Ward’s advisory panel dedicated to the home and building category. In this role, Susan adds to the collective brainpower and experience of respected industry thought leaders.

We’re glad to have Susan on the extended Wray Ward team, and we jumped at the opportunity to speak with her about how innovative thinking drives success.

Q: What is innovative thinking? Is it different from daily human thought?

A: Innovative thinking means approaching situations in a way that encourages adaptability. To do this, we must train our brains to overcome our innate cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts that we use for problem-solving and decision-making. To be clear, cognitive biases are NOT individual or personal biases (meaning these are NOT the same as the personal biases that affect diversity and equality). Cognitive biases are a neuroscience phenomenon that all humans share. It’s also important to understand that they operate subconsciously, affecting our thinking in ways we don’t realize.

You see, humans have two different thinking systems, commonly known as System 1 and System 2, sometimes referred to as thinking fast (1) and thinking slow (2).

System 1 is the “intuitive,” quick and easy thinking that we do most of the time. In fact, it accounts for about 98% of our thinking. It doesn’t require a lot of mental effort: We do it easily, quickly and without having to think about the fact that we’re thinking.

System 2 thinking is deeper thinking: the kind that’s required for complex problem-solving and decision-making. Since this deeper thinking requires more effort and energy, our brains automatically and subconsciously default to the easier System 1 thinking whenever possible. Cognitive biases result when our brains try to stay in System 1 thinking when we should perhaps be using System 2.

In typical circumstances, several of these cognitive biases conspire to make us perceive that continuing as we are is the best decision. It feels familiar. It feels lower-risk. It feels smarter. Choosing to do nothing different is our default. Often, it doesn’t even feel like we made a decision. Instead, it feels as if we were really smart for NOT making a potentially risky decision.

But what we neglect to calculate is the risk of missed opportunity.

Innovative thinking means avoiding falling into the trap of these cognitive biases when approaching problems. Obviously, since these are intuitive and subconscious responses, this is not an easy task.

Q: What can be done to encourage innovative thinking?

A: There are proven ways that we can better manage our brains. Many of these involve actively working to be aware of cognitive biases that may be at work.

For example, negativity bias is the phenomenon that negative experiences have a greater impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviors than positive experiences. This means we are much more highly motivated to avoid negative than we are to seek out positive. So, we are prone to reject new ideas, because rejecting ideas feels like we’re avoiding potential negatives.

The way to recognize when this is happening is to listen for the words “Yes, but …” in response to ideas. We all hear or say “Yes, but …” multiple times on an average day.

Q: How can companies lean on innovative thinking to forge a creative problem-solving culture?

A: Interestingly, to survive the pandemic, companies were forced to adapt quickly to radically new circumstances. Even large organizations, which typically struggle to shift directions quickly, managed to accomplish it. Leaders discovered that, when required, their organization could act much more quickly and nimbly than they normally do.

Obviously, the pandemic was a radical example of an instance in which System 1 thinking was no longer an option, so the typical cognitive biases didn’t limit our thinking. But if organizations keep cognitive biases in mind, it is possible to work toward hardwiring innovative thinking into a culture. This, in turn, will help ensure that the organization grows stronger.

For example, to negate negativity bias, teams should respond to “Yes, but …” with “What if …?” This requires a dedicated and conscious mental effort by everyone on the team to monitor responses to new ideas. Every time “Yes, but …” is uttered, the response needs to be, “What if we could solve for that?” This reframing of the problem into a question is a neuroscience brain hack that will trigger our brains to look for solutions instead of instantly rejecting the idea.

Q: The pandemic surely forced us to think outside the box. Does this give you hope for the future of innovative thinking at large organizations?

A: The bad news is that cognitive biases are always going to be a factor in our problem-solving and decision-making; they’re hard-wired into us. The good news is that, with some dedicated and continuous mental effort, companies big and small can mitigate them and become nimbler in the face of change.

Thanks to Susan for participating in Wray Ward’s Inspire series and The Cul-de-Sac advisory panel. Stay tuned for more stories about people who, like Susan, are making their mark on companies of all shapes and sizes.

The Cul-de-Sac is an engine for proprietary, provocative research and thought leadership topics. Interested in getting involved? Contact me.

Explore more articles from Wray Ward.