It could be construed as “going back to the future,” but working in a more concrete world – not in the virtual world – can change the way we look at and think about many things. The value of such a profound change resides in its proven ability to spur innovation. These authors describe how individuals and organizations can effect such a change.

Today’s technology provides us with amazing power that can drive even more amazing innovations. For example, we have the ability to simulate earthquakes with great precision as well as new building approaches for greater safety;i quality video production is in the hands of the masses (e.g., YouTube), and Internet interfaces that engender “mashups” across major platforms such as GoogleMaps and your local real estate company’s listings are widely available.

However, these technologies are also relatively abstract. They are available but the question must be asked: Are we really thinking about exciting ways of applying them across new areas? People are generally lazy – or perhaps “efficient” – even with just their own, established way of thinking about things. Louis and Suttonii called this “habits of mind.” But if we want to spur innovation, we need to trigger new understanding and a new way (s) of thinking.

This article begins with a look at how both more and less concrete triggers can power innovation. We then move on to address how to use concrete opportunities, if not concrete objects, to spur innovation in more abstract settings, including virtual teams and the “cloud” of Internet computing.

Physical objects and triggers for innovation

One of the most dramatic examples of the use of physical objects in innovation involved the Apollo 13 “Houston, we’ve had a problem” jury-rig of a square carbon dioxide filter to fit in a round hole. In the movie, engineers are shown dumping all the objects known to be available in the spacecraft on a table. Rather than imagine the materials that Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise had at their disposal in the command and lunar modules, the engineers at mission control gathered duplicates of the objects. They eventually fabricated a connection using a sock, plastic bag, pressure suit hose, cardboard manual cover, and duct tape.iii They then communicated the method of construction to the astronauts for completion.

Another example of how physical objects drive innovation is a company, IDEO, the design consultants made famous in the Nightline segment “The Deep Dive” (depicting the design of an innovative shopping cartiv) and the “Tech Box” the company keeps in its major offices. This box is a “combination parts and materials library, database and website, and organizational memory.”v The box is assigned a formal curator and employees stay on the lookout for new contributions. The designers can rummage through the materials in the box “…to gain inspiration, break out of a holding pattern, or merely avoid reinventing the wheel.”

Pixar, which produces superb animated movies, takes actual road trips for inspiration. For example, key team members went to the Great Barrier Reef for Finding Nemo, traveled Route 66 for Cars,vi and toured dumps for WALL-E. Harley Jessup (production designer for Ratatouille) said, “A research gathering trip to the location, happily it was Paris for Ratatouille, is very important to bring back images that are impossible to find in books and to experience just being there.”vii

But we generally live and work in much more abstract settings

While the above examples highlight the value of concrete objects in triggering new perspectives and innovation, they may not depict reality for most of us. Instead, reality for most of us is often more virtual, and thus abstract rather than concrete. Many of us work in virtual teams where not all, if any, of the team members work with us face-to-face. Additionally, much of the work we do on our own is done virtually; we are working on computers and often on an invisible network, the Internet. But there is a great risk involved in doing virtual work. The abstract nature of work suppresses the triggers for innovation, exactly when we have the greatest opportunities to innovate products and processes. Our Internet-enabled environment grants us access to vast sources of information and has a vast ability to spread our ideas through Web 2.0 publication (recall the 2006 Time Magazine Person of the Year: You – describing the role community and collaboration via YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, and the like are having on the world). But the Internet environment also obfuscates these opportunities by hiding them in the vastness of cyberspace. Recently, the term “cloud” computing has been popularized to describe our ability to create, store, and access our information on the Internet itself, rather than on the relative concreteness of our own hard drive. This is yet another step away from concreteness and toward the abstract.

But, as has been pointed out, the more concrete the trigger, the more likely a new perspective will be engaged,viii and with it, the chance for innovation. The more abstract the trigger, the more likely that existing perspectives will be used,ix resulting in incremental adjustments. The author and academic Bob Sutton, in Weird Ideas that Work, says, “To build a company where innovation is a way of life, rather than a rare accident that can’t be explained or replicated, people need to discard, and often reverse, their deeply ingrained beliefs about how to treat people and make decisions.”x You have to trigger changes in how the world is perceived in order to trigger innovation.

Benefits and burdens of existing perspectives

How we understand and function within our world lead to mental inertia. Nobel Laureate Herb Simon provided foundational work on the mental simplifications we use to manage the otherwise overwhelming stimulation we are presented with throughout the day.xi We unconsciously use existing mental models (simplifications) until we are spurred into active thinking, and subsequently, into generating new models. These triggers are more likely to be activated if the situation is novel, if there is a discrepancy between what is expected and what is observed, or if you are asked to think.xii Concrete triggers are effective because their novelty can be observed (versus hidden on the Internet) and because concrete triggers can literally grind to a halt when an inappropriate mental model is applied. Concrete triggers carry with them a demand to be noticed, and thus, greater prospects for understanding. The square Apollo filter would clearly not fit in the required round hole. Innovation was necessary. The duct tape the astronauts used has a bonding capability that cannot be overlooked, and the air tightness of the resulting seal can be confirmed by applying soap and water to the seal.

Abstract triggers allow us to continue applying our current perspectives. Internet capabilities can be subtle. Think about the last introduction of a new technology in your organization. Often these are mere automations of existing practices, rather than new technology capabilities that can trigger and enable exciting organizational process innovations. For example, automating the expense reporting process or posting college class handouts on line are hardly radical innovations.

On the other hand, imagine a college or high school without books. That’s a significant innovation. The University of Texas is running a pilot project where students get their textbooks via the Amazon Kindle eBook.xiii No need for giant bookstores or giant backpacks. No need for long lines as students sell used books. We don’t have the background on this example, but we question whether it’s the existence of the eBook itself that somehow enabled this re-conceptualization of how materials should be delivered. Publishers can, and do to a degree, make their materials available for online purchase. However, we don’t see many students doing their assigned reading on their laptops. The existence of the eBook (and certainly the improved quality of the text in the high-end models) may be playing a triggering role. Sony seems to understand the role of physical objects in changing perspectives. Its PRS-700 eBook is being introduced by 1000 specially trained sales people in 3000 physical stores. Sony says that this is very important, as people who said they were uninterested in reading eBooks changed their minds when they were able to touch and work with the physical product.xiv

Concrete opportunities

But all is not lost for the more abstract settings like those encountered by virtual teams or in the Internet cloud. We don’t have to create concrete triggers. We can instead create “concrete opportunities” to trigger innovation.


Reflect for a moment. Think about what’s new in your setting. You can take this step at any time. Think about the recent software upgrade you did. Is there now a new way to reduce the number of steps you need to do a task? What about your virtual team? Have you been using text communication where video would provide more value? Do an audit of your team’s needs and available resources.xv These activities are concrete opportunities for process innovation. Product innovation can work the same way. How can you recombine features of products you already have? Recombination is a powerful form of innovationxvi and may just require stopping long enough to see if something old has become new again. Sony’s Walkman was a combination of existing technologies packaged in a new way.xvii Which employees could be added to the team to take it in a new direction? Spend time looking at the files and applications on your computer. How could old material be reused? How could applications be put to use in new ways? What would happen if these weren’t files on your computer, but instead files in your team’s “cloud?” What data from public sources could be combined/“mashed-up” with your company’s data in a way that would support your project or clients?


Use the power of analytics to shine a spotlight on current and possible processes and products.xviii Current technologies provide amazing tools for gathering data and using them to make decisions. Run small experiments to see if there are actual, valuable differences in approaches to your teamwork or business practice. Watch for objective changes in behavior such as speedier responses to emails or more clickthroughs on your product site. To improve its web site, Yahoo! runs experiments every day. Harrah’s Casino tracks the immediate impact of marketing promotions.xix Assigning metrics to assess ideas and behaviors helps make them seem more concrete and highlights discrepancies between beliefs and reality.

Create relevant RSS feeds (subscriptions to changing Internet content) to your browser’s homepage. Start with your favorite news, blog, or professional site. Look for a broadcast-like icon similar to the one above, click on it, and then follow the instructions for your subscription. Now think more broadly about where you might find useful perspectives. The more broadly you choose your subscriptions, the more likely is the information to be different from your regular perspective – and so more likely to trigger innovation.


Work with teammates, customers, clients, random contacts, and friends to push your ideas to produce more than incremental adjustments. Ask them how things could be better. Ask yourself what you could be doing differently. Create concrete opportunities for these discussions. The U.S. Army and many other crisis response groups use “After Action Reviews” to ask: What was expected? What happened? Why did it happen? What did we get away with? What should we do next time? They do this after every cycle of action (not just after a mistake), so the questions become a natural part of the process.

Consider whether an information or project portal would provide more open communication than telephone or email. Portals are websites where project documents are shared even as they are being constructed; to-do lists are posted and tracked; threaded-discussions are created on the fly, but archived for later use. The value is that team members can update work as it progresses, they can comment when they have an idea, and overall progress can be followed (also in support of LOOK). Email, phone, and even face-to-face communication are limited when compared to a portal. Meetings are time constrained, people may forget ideas between meetings, information can be lost, and there are limits to how the work can be tracked for later analysis. Clearly, the portal serves as a support for more personal discussions, but it is also a critical support that creates a concrete resource as the project progresses.

Concrete steps for modern times

In the olden days, innovation flew off a hillside (The Wright Brothers at Kittie-Hawk) and forced us to take note. Today, the most powerful laptop looks very similar to one with much less power – we may have to search the “about this computer” drop-down menu to evaluate speed and other capabilities, let alone to discover which software tools are available. Even if we see all the software, it is so complex that most of us are aware of only a small percentage of the available options. Additionally, some of the software’s actions are designed to be hidden from view. (The best knowledge management systems, for example, are largely passive until explicitly queried.xx) We want technologies to take over much of the heavy lifting; however, in the past some of that heavy lifting focused on concrete objects that were more likely to trigger new perspectives.

Unfortunately, modern settings are much more abstract and require the creation of concrete opportunities to support innovation in organizations. Our basic steps include:

  1. STOP: Reflect on what’s new. Is there an opportunity to use what you have in order to do something different?

  2. LOOK: Use analysis and experiments to highlight concrete differences in strategies or products.

  3. LISTEN: Create concrete opportunities for innovation.

Discipline yourself to use these steps regularly in your work life, with your team, with your customers. Doing so will bring concrete triggers to bear and pay off in the discovery of opportunities for significant innovation.


  1. B. Mason, “Videos simulate earthquake in San Francisco Bay area,” 2008,
  2. M. R. Louis and R. I. Sutton, “Switching cognitive gears: From habits of mind to active thinking,” Human Relations, vol. 44, pp. 55-76, 1991.
  3. G. Kranz, Failure is Not an Option. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2000, p. 328.
  4. ABC, “The Deep Dive,” Nightline, 1999.
  5. IDEO, “Tech Box for IDEO,” 2008,
  6. P. Patton, “Pixar’s ‘Cars’ got its kicks on Route 66,” in New York Times, 2006.
  7. R. Barbagallo, “A closer look: Harley Jessup, Sharon Callahan & Brad Bird on Ratatouille,” 2008,
  8. T. L. Griffith, “Technology features as triggers for sensemaking,” Academy of Management Review, vol. 24, pp. 472-488, 1999.
  9. Louis and Sutton.
  10. Page 4.
  11. M. Augier, “Sublime Simon: The consistent vision of economic psychology’s Nobel Laureate,” Journal of Economic Psychology, vol. 22, pp. 307-334, 2001.
  12. Louis and Sutton.
  16. A. Hargadon, How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth about how Companies Innovate. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
  18. T. H. Davenport and J. G. Harris, Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2007.
  20. T. L. Griffith and J. E. Sawyer, “Supporting technologies and organizational practices for the transfer of knowledge in virtual environments,” Group Decision and Negotiation, vol. 15, pp. 407-423, 2006.

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