4 minute read 26 Apr 2018
man contemplating artwork gallery

How to foster innovative thinking

By EY Global

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

4 minute read 26 Apr 2018

Future business challenges demand new ways of thinking. How can you create the ideal conditions for creativity and experimentation?

Popular science author Steven Johnson once said, “If you look at history, innovation doesn't come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”

Creativity and innovative thinking rarely come from sitting at a desk in an office, in a boardroom or reading shareholder reports. But executives rarely give themselves the physical or mental opportunity to step out of the operational running of their organization. As a result, they are often not tackling the bigger challenges facing their businesses now and in the future. These challenges require new and different ways of thinking.

EY Innovation Realized retreat was conceived to create the ideal conditions for creativity, to inspire and take participants out of their comfort zone to tackle the big challenges on the horizon. So what can we learn?

1. Create uncomfortable environments

As Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, challenged participants: “How often do you spend time in strikingly different places?” Only by doing this will you shift your perspective and gain strikingly different insights. The circus tents on an old naval base in the San Francisco Bay Area were designed to create exactly that strikingly different environment that would take participants out of their comfort zone.

2. Sensorial stimulation opens the mind

The use of light, water and music provided unexpected transitions between spaces. Atypical brainstorming sessions took place in dark rooms and in spaces surrounded by rain. This allowed participants to open their eyes, ears and bodies to new sensations and as a result open their minds too.

I really liked the session where we went into a darkened room, we turned all the lights off, and I found that by not seeing how people were reacting to what other people in the room were saying, it generated a much more open debate.
  • Case study: Venmo

    The peer-to-peer payment platform, launched in 2009, has disrupted the wallets of millennials globally, processing US$7.4 billion payments in 2015. The company’s leaders have worked hard to maintain the start-up mentality from which the business was created, even as it has grown. Their Hack Week innovation strategy allows staff to pitch ideas that they believe will drive the business forward and cross-functional teams of employees “hack them together.” “Anyone who has an idea can pitch it to the group, and people work on whatever project interests them,” says Michael Vaughan, COO. These events both allow good ideas to emerge quickly but also enables the business to drop ideas and products that are no longer working.

3. Productive collisions spark new insights

Networking and making connections shouldn’t be confined to annual conferences. Getting out of the office and talking to someone different from yourself, someone you don’t know, and who likely doesn’t share your views can challenge our assumptions. For example, seek opinions from academia, the VC community, those who work at the fringes of your organization. You can also engineer these productive collisions inside your business and encourage diversity of thought. As Jeff Wong, EY Global Chief Innovation Officer, explains, “Organizations that create teams with different perspectives can help you envision your business and how it can work in a world that is constantly changing. When organizations put the right people in the right roles, the speed of innovation will only accelerate.”

4. Give permission to experiment

How can you turn your workplace into a safe space for employees to communicate, create, challenge and learn? How do you foster risk-taking, encourage experimentation and reward creative thinking? M. Pilar Opazo, in her session on Creativity and Change at elBulli, challenged participants to question the following: what structures support and encourage innovation in your company?

By giving employees permission to experiment, you offer people the opportunity to be wrong. Companies that embrace the fundamental philosophies once exclusive to start-ups, such as an iterative and fail-fast approach, will create new products, drive business development and attain/retain top talent.

  • Case study: Supercell

    Helsinki-based Supercell is the creator of some of the most popular mobile games of all time. Founder and CEO Ilkka Paananen has created a flat management structure that allows employees to work in small teams with “complete freedom and responsibility,” i.e., no boss. But this also demands a laser-focus on recruitment. For Paanenen the key has been to find employees who are passionate, highly skilled and have the right mindset to work autonomously. Clearly this strategy has worked. Supercell was acquired in June 2016 (in an 84.3% stake) by Chinese-holding company Tencent for US$8.6 billion.

5. Change mindsets

Negative emotions undermine the capacity to think broadly and find creative solutions. Hal Gregersen’s Question Burst exercise, designed to allow participants to share challenges with their peers, taking an emotional temperature check before and after the exercise evidenced this. Gregersen was emphatic, “we are more likely to come up with answers to our questions if we are in a positive mental state.”

How do you plan for disruption? I don’t know. I only know how to equip people to think differently about the challenges and opportunities.

Action agenda

  • What opportunities can you create to change the environment in which your people work? How can you allow them to spend time in strikingly different places?
  • How can you find ways to put out all of your sensorial feelers when seeking information? Not just listening but seeing, feeling and even tasting your challenge?
  • Who are the people inside and outside your organization that could challenge your assumptions and offer a different perspective? It could be anyone – from the staff who clean your office building to a local start-up business in your area.
  • How can you encourage experimentation in your organization? How is risk-taking rewarded in your business?
  • If the overriding mindset regarding future challenges in your organization is negative, think about how to enhance the positive. How can you reframe the idea of adversity using language, imagery, music? How can you create an experience that changes mindsets?


Generated by EYQ, an EY think tank that explores leading and emerging trends, focusing on “what’s after what’s next?”.


To prepare for disruption, organizations must give their workforce space to experiment and step outside of their comfort zone.

About this article

By EY Global

Multidisciplinary professional services organization