Improve your answer resolution and unleash innovation

-August 08, 2016

The great classical physicist Lord Rayleigh defined a detector's resolution as the minimum separation of two objects necessary for the detector to recognize that they're separate. For example, the diameter of an eye's pupil, also called its aperture, determines its resolution. Eagles can see mice in the weeds from hundreds of feet because of their huge pupils.

Lord Rayleigh defined the term resolution.

Let's generalize the concept of resolution to answers. Sure, it's quite an abstraction, but we abstract things all the time—grunting and whining became language became symbolic text became mathematics, and somewhere along the way, we laughed too. In every instant we are confronted with queries, mostly unconscious ones: what’s that smell, that sound, that vision, that sensation? Answer resolution is our ability to distinguish concepts and understand how they're connected.

In my articles on idea prejudice and the business case for diversity, I described the pattern predicting categorizing nature of our brains. When we confront something—any perception, sensation, or concept—we put it in a category with similar things that we've already experienced and predict how it will affect us. Pattern recognition by categorization is a fast way to make sense of the world, but it cuts corners. Usually, a table is just a table, but sometimes a cat is a saber-toothed tiger. Cats and saber-toothed tigers can share one category, but the big cat gets cross-correlated to the category with snakes and mother-in-laws and other things that we run away from.

To improve the resolution of an eye, you make the pupil larger. To improve the resolution of a mind, you give it more categories of patterns and more correlations among them. Lateral thought finds the relationships between patterns. You experience lateral thought every time you laugh at a joke. Jokes connect disparate ideas with a common theme and if you laugh, that common theme is both absurd and harmless. Answer resolution combines the ability to recognize tiny differences among highly similar concepts with the ability to find relationships among highly dissimilar concepts—intense focus along with equally intense lack of focus—to light your insight bulb.

You know the analytical left brain/creative right brain cliché? It has a germ of truth, but here's a more accurate left-right oversimplification: the left brain focuses on details and the right brain on the big picture. That is, left brain sees the trees, right brain sees the forest. It's more than a metaphor: the left brain has a larger number of gray neurons than the right, and shorter, tighter connections—more gray matter. The right brain has fewer neurons but longer connections between them. Neurons are connected to each other by axons that have white myelin insulation. With its many long axons, the right brain has more white matter.

High resolution categorization is more of a left brain process and finding the relationships and correlations between categories is more of a right brain process. Innovation requires both halves on deck.

The most perceptive genius has a unique category for every single thing that she encounters and an exhaustive catalog of the possible relationships between them. Since she has to examine every sensation, find its nuances, how it relates to everything she already knows, and then create a unique category for it, she takes forever to do anything and can't get away from tigers and snakes. Mother-in-laws love her.

At the opposite end, the stupidest among us, puts everything in two categories, overlooks every fascinating characteristic, and denies any possible relationships between the two.

Most of us fall somewhere between the slow genius and the fast bonehead. Sometimes we pile ideas into the same categories when they're quite different—we have our prejudices—but most of the time, we recognize and appreciate nuance. But, as life coaches like to say, "Whatever you've been doing is only good enough to get you here."

The most effective way to improve your answer resolution is to immerse yourself in subjects where you're uninformed. Read books that you might otherwise pass by, go to seminars on topics of which you're ignorant, dive into the deep end of areas that catch your interest, and wade into issues that have never intrigued you. Wandering around museums is a quick way to trigger curiosity. The signal-to-noise problem of the Internet requires careful, conscious curating of content.

Since breadth of education (education in its most general sense!) almost always accompanies great innovations, it seems to me that an engineering degree is incomplete without a strong background in literature, history, and art just as a degree in the arts is incomplete without a foundation of mathematics, science, and engineering.

The fastest way to improve your answer resolution, especially for the innovations you're striving for right now, is to use the opposite of NIH (not invented here) which is IOT (invented over there): Rephrase the problem you're trying to solve into terms that someone in an unrelated field—a sculptor, surgeon, musician, lawyer, bartender, carpenter—can understand and ask them for help. Two things happen right out the gate: first, you get a whole new perspective on the problem and, second, you draw on someone else's expertise, someone whose specialty is orthogonal to yours—lateral thought between two separate brains!

Finally, the easiest way to improve answer resolution is to hold fewer opinions. Our opinions help us separate signals from noise. On careful examination, most opinions—anyone's opinions (mine too)—more effectively inhibit us from entertaining vast regions of idea space than perform the desired role of a noise filter.

I feel very strongly that people should be less opinionated.

Editor's note: The concepts of "idea prejudice" and "answer resolution" come from Ransom's book, The Left Brain Speaks but the Right Brain Laughs, which is coming out in September 2016 from Viva Editions.

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