Digital Technology
Jun 21, 2018

The translation of innovation: thinkers and tinkerers

Innovation begins at the end of a revelation – when the human brain connects neurons to arrive at a solution. But that connection doesn't happen the same way for everyone. There are two types of cognitive reasoning – the inductive (the tinkerers) and deductive (the thinkers). To innovate successfully, it is useful to listen to both kinds of reasoning: inductive, which can learn and generalize from examples and experiments, as well as inductive, which abstracts its way to radically new ideas.

Inductive thinkers tend to stumble into bigger projects, but may struggle when trying to change established paradigms. Meanwhile, deductive thinkers can think outside of the box, but may struggle in prototyping, testing, and ultimately executing. Left to their own devices, both types of innovation talents may find collaboration difficult. Organizational design or other interventions may be necessary to ignite the right combination. 

A lesser known innovation chasm

Deductive thinkers seek abstraction to develop new ideas and exploit theory before observation. On the other hand, inductive thinkers are more experimental and arrive at conclusions by combining what they know and see with continuous iteration with anyone who can provide feedback to their ongoing prototyping. Theoretical physicists, philosophers, and mathematicians tend to be deductive thinkers because, in their eyes, nothing matters more than creating new lenses to view the world. But, as creative as they may be, their inventions may fail during translation and never reach the innovation stage. The best, most innovative engineers and inventors are inductive thinkers who can apply combinatorial thinking to concepts with pre-existing knowledge. This revolves around the application of science, not imaginative curiosity and blue-sky theories.

However, the reception of these approaches can vary depending on the audience. Chief Finance Officers will tend to favor inductive approaches, whereas Chief Innovation Officers or Chief Strategy Officers tend to prefer just the opposite.

When looking at the history of innovation, the biggest breakthroughs – especially those that have technology as their backbone – come from unconstrained thinking and “polymath behaviors," which requires collaboration between many people with different tendencies – the thinkers and tinkerers. We can find many examples of amazing inductive and deductive combinations, such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. As a designer focused on emotions, Jobs was in many ways a deductive thinker, while Wozniak was an inductive thinker and a master at engineering. Together, it was their ability to translate between inductive and deductive approaches that enabled them to build one of the largest information technology companies, Apple, Inc.

What to do? 

There's no question that deductive and inductive professionals can – and must – work harmoniously together to create a well-oiled machine. However, if enterprises don't understand the types of innovators that they have, they may inadvertently cater too much to the engineering-minded ones, or the opposite. Innovators' ideas may be shot down alternatively as too theoretical or too incremental. In an era of diversity and the power of critical thinking and collaboration, getting thinkers and tinkerers to come together falls into the hands of C-suite executives. These executives can provide the “common sandbox" for the two types of thinkers, making sure they run together smoothly and efficiently.

Once you recognize the inductive or deductive tendencies of your people, it's crucial to arm innovation teams, internal buyers, and salespeople, who work with clients and are the face of the organization.

In a deductive organization, teams must test theories and concepts at scale. For instance, you can encourage teams to prototype based on theory, construct experiments, and ensure they have the right levels of knowledge management so that learnings are propagated. You can help them collaborate with first adopters through co-innovation efforts that reduce their perceived risk. Use design thinking to get the organization to test hypotheses early and frequently. Try to involve clients in the shaping of abstract ideas, or give them a roadmap of how the concept will evolve so that they understand your thought process.

Conversely, in an inductive organization, protect abstract thinkers from the hustle of their daily routines and practical supremacy that non-abstract thinkers harbor, and give them access to sustained budgets and resources.

The brain can benefit from moments of “cognitive dissonance," when opposing results are at first disorienting but ultimately yield greater understanding. Similarly, organizations can benefit from the dialectic between inductive and deductive reasoning, from thinking and tinkering. The result is a stronger level of “collective intelligence," able to produce radical innovation.

About the author

Gianni Giacomelli

Gianni Giacomelli

Chief Innovation Leader

Gianni serves as Chief Innovation Leader where he drives and sponsors Genpact’s strategic initiatives aimed at sustaining clients’ transformation into digitally-enabled companies. He also co-leads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) efforts to set up a Collective Intelligence Design Lab.