The best innovations arise by following the path of most resistance, not least resistance. As Amnon Levav at SIT writes, "In nature, water cascading down a mountain follows the path of least resistance - the easiest route to arrive at its final destination. In thinking, too, our minds tend to take the path of least resistance - those avenues that are familiar to us. So doing, it is difficult to arrive at ideas that are new to us or to our competitors."
Two principles of consumer behavior* account for this. The Principle of Cognitive Efficiency says that individuals are unlikely to expend any more cognitive effort than necessary to attain the objective they are pursuing. Thus, they use the procedure or judgmental criterion that is easiest to apply. The Principle of Knowledge Accessibility says that individuals typically use only a small subset of the relevant knowledge they have acquired as a basis for comprehending information, generally the knowledge that comes to mind most quickly and easily.
In other words, people stick to what they know and what's easiest to process. The good news is that people can be trained to recognize this phenomena and shift over to the path of most resistance - where the most exciting ideas are waiting to be imagined.
How do you recognize it? Look for laughter. When something is funny, it means two previously unrelated themes suddenly collided to create an absurdity. For innovation practitioners, laughter during workshops is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it signals a moment when participants have encountered a truly odd and unfamiliar configuration. That means innovation is "right around the corner." But laughter derails innovation if not handled properly. Here is a case in point.
During an innovation exercise, a facilitator guided participants to use a thinking tool to create an odd configuration for an ink pen. The task was to make the ink pen worse or non-functional. Following instructions, one of the participants gave the ink a foul odor. The next instructions took him by surprise. He had to imagine the terrible-smelling ink pen having some beneficial use. Almost instantly, he replied jokingly that the pen could be used to fill out tax forms for the government. Everyone laughed.
When the laughter stopped, something interesting happened. The participants stopped thinking about the pen. They prepared themselves to receive the next set of instructions. That was the mental path of least resistance. They moved away from the unfamiliar avenue - smelly ink pen - and moved to something less cognitively taxing.
The facilitator intervened. He forced them to reflect on what was happening. Why were they moving away from the odd idea? To them, it was obvious. Once everyone started laughing at the man's joke, it was not worth pursuing. It was a dead end. At that exact moment, they were being cognitively efficient - not wanting to waste mental effort on an absurdity. They stopped searching their mental data base.
To their surprise, the facilitator made them stay with the smelly ink concept. He asked people to reflect on the essence of the idea - why was it funny and what was the point of using odorous ink to send in one's tax forms? After a few moments of thought, they replied that the smelly ink was a way to tell the government they object to paying taxes. It was a way of getting back at them. In other words, the ink had an additional job. It was not just to form letters and numbers on a piece of paper. It had the added task of using its smell to convey information.
Once framed this way, participants were asked to imagine what else the ink could do. What other types of information and in what situations could the smell of ink be used in a serious and legitimate way? Suddenly, participants conjured up many unique and clever ways to have ink be more effective. It could communicate information, validate who the writer is, convey sentiment, authenticate accuracy, and so on. The Path of Most Resistance turned into the Path of Innovation.
*Kardes, F. M., & Wyer, R. S. (in press). Consumer Information Processing. In D. Carlston (Ed.) Handbook of Social Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press.