When organizations are looking for new, innovative ideas, the conventional wisdom is to convene a brainstorming team. But, according to Columbia Business School Professor Sheena Iyengar, the path to true paradigm-shifting innovation is to think bigger than a brainstorming session by narrowing down the choices.
Blind since a young age, Iyengar is a child of parents from a strict cultural background in which individual decision-making was limited. Her experience with being told she wouldn’t be able to make many of her own life choices led to her interest in understanding how, and why, we make the choices we make.
Her first book, the bestselling “The Art of Choosing” (Twelve, March 2010), was a Financial Times and Goldman Sachs 2010 Business Book of the Year as well as the #3 best business and investing book on Amazon’s 2010 year-end list. In it, the S. T. Lee Professor of Business takes a rigorously researched approach to understanding which parts of choice are innate, such as cognitive function and limitations, and which parts are learned through the influences of cultural and social elements. Iyengar provides deft analysis of how we make choices in her 2010 TEDGlobal Talk that’s been viewed more than 4 million times.
Explaining that choice serves two main cognitive functions – as the tool we use to create and the tool we use to pick and find – she points out that the exercise of picking and finding has become much more complex in the modern day, concluding that businesses may simply be offering too many choices to consumers.
According to Iyengar, the optimal number of options to present is seven.
“We have a narrative that choice is this wonderful thing because it’s the only tool you have that enables you to create the future you want,” explains Iyengar, who has been named among the top business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50 twice, in 2019 and 2021. “But the many options we’re presented with today can lead us to become overwhelmed, choose less well and be less satisfied with our ultimate choice.”
Thinking Bigger to Unlock Exceptional Innovation
The solution, Iyengar explains, is to create more meaningful choices. She developed the groundbreaking Think Bigger MBA course at Columbia, which applies neuro and cognitive science to teach students to apply a structured framework, the Think Bigger Choice Map, to zero in on and thoroughly evaluate the most meaningful options to innovatively solve the questions that matter most.
“‘Think Bigger’ gives you the ability to see choice where others see no choice,” explains Iyengar, Chair of the Nominating Committee for Asian University for Women. “The reason I developed ‘Think Bigger’ is to remove the platitudes to show everyone the how behind creating the most meaningful choices which lead to creative ideas.”
Iyengar has trained design teams from E&Y and KPMG to Hearst and Seramount on the Think Bigger framework, which can also be found in her new book, “Think Bigger: How to Innovate” (Columbia Business School Publishing, April 2023). In it, she presents a six-step framework for innovation that promotes the power of creative thinking and empowers anyone to open the proverbial “black box” of creativity. By sharing real-world stories of successful innovators and plainly explaining what outside-the-box thinking actually is, “Think Bigger” helps organizations innovate and grow through a disciplined approach to making choices that includes practical tools for generating, identifying and cultivating the best ideas.
“Innovation is simply a useful novel combination of old ideas that solves for complex problems,” explains Iyengar, who was named one of the World’s Best B-School Professors by Poets & Quants. “By being forced to combine unexpected sets of options, we can answer the critical question of how your mind actually forms great problem-solving ideas with less cognitive bias.”
More Structure, Better Choices, Greater Innovation
From a background of many life choices being made on her behalf to becoming one of the world’s top experts on choice, Iyengar’s research and expertise offers fascinating insight into not only how and why humans make the choices they do, but also how the process of choosing can be fine-tuned to spark creativity leading to groundbreaking innovation.
“Limiting choice is a proxy for structure,” Iyengar concludes. “By editing the available choices, we’re able to organize, see the differences between options and find the possibilities that offer the most impactful solutions for unique innovation challenges.”
Better choices and decisions are the keys to better innovations. Stern Strategy Group connects you with renowned thought leaders whose insights, strategies and management frameworks help organizations fuel growth and disruptive innovation to better compete in a constantly changing world. Let us arrange for these esteemed experts to advise your organization via virtual and in-person consulting sessions, workshops and keynotes.