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shutterstock_288570788No, this is not a blog about the Doors’ classic song. However, we’ve all had those moments where we scratch our heads and think, People are strange…”

For example, do these sound familiar?

  • You’re leading a workshop to align a team on an important initiative. Half of the participants dominate the conversation and the other half don’t say a word.
  • You’re running an ideation session, and it’s falling flat.
  • You’re watching focus group participants struggle to articulate what they think of your new product concept.


The problem is not motivation or personality. The problem is you don’t have the “right brains” in the room, or you lack the skills to make the most of each person’s thinking style. Mastering the concept of cognitive style is essential if you want to maximize the skills and abilities of the people in the innovation process, whether an internal team or study participants.

Cognitive style refers to how people absorb information, how they process and express it, and how they solve problems. As Richard Scholl of the University of Rhode Island puts it, “cognitive style is less about the decisions that individuals actually make and more about the process used to make them.”

We’re all different. Some of us are extroverted, and others are introverted. Some people can clearly express feelings about an idea, while other brains find this tremendously difficult. A lot of us are grounded by facts; and others more intuitive. These differences are rarely reflected in job titles or demographics, although that is usually where we start in pulling together innovation teams or research participants.

For innovation managers, the key to putting the right brains in the room is to match the cognitive style of team members to the tasks at hand. And that goes double for researchers looking for the right research participants.

For example, we recently completed a client ideation session to generate new product ideas. Prior to the session, we profiled all 12 people on the team: all but two were highly-sensing. That means that 10 of the people had a cognitive style that is especially sensitive to deficiencies in process. We warned our client and the results were predictable. Instead of generating breakthrough ideas, we spent four hours discussing issues about the current customer journey. A clear mismatch between the task and the people needed to complete the task.

Here’s another example. Last year, we coordinated focus groups on home furnace maintenance with the same goal—generate new product ideas. Our concern was that the insights would be dull and uninspiring. Therefore, we loaded the group with consumers hard-wired to tell stories. We gave them permission to think broadly about furnace maintenance, indoor air quality, and overall health and well-being. The results were, well, magical.

The bottom line: there is a human side to innovation. Understanding cognitive styles helps you make the most of the people in your innovation process.

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