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Which U.S. state or territory was the first to allow women to vote?

If you answered “Wyoming,” you’re correct. On December 10, 1869, Wyoming passed the first women’s suffrage law, granting women voting rights in hopes of attracting more female settlers to the rugged West. When Wyoming became a state in 1890, it would become known as the “Equality State.”

Wyoming started with a blank slate; there was no precedent to change, unlike in other states where women voting was considered illegal. When you start fresh, you can make your own rules. Jeff Bezos famously said, “It is always Day 1” at Amazon. The “Day 1” mentality is about being agile, experimental, and brave enough to fail. It’s about being untainted by the past and curious about the future.

As Wyoming demonstrated with its equal voting laws, when there isn’t an established precedent, you are free to decorate your own blank canvas.

The Brain’s Default Mode: Making Room for Creativity

I recently had a conversation with neuroscientist Min Jung about his book A Brain for Innovation. He told me that if humans want to make room for creative ideas, our brains need to spend more time in default mode, which is when we are not focused on performing external cognitive tasks and our minds are allowed to wander at rest.

In every creative field, there is a concept of entering a flow state. Artists do loose drawings. Writers scribble down morning pages. Scientists experiment and play. Athletes warm up to get “in the zone.” The concept of beginner’s mind in Zen Buddhism teaches you to fully empty the mind to enter a meditative state. You release all expectations and history.

To come up with a good idea, you need to make space for a lot of ideas. And according to Jung, you won’t have new, creative ideas if you’re only focused on getting tasks done.

The Skill Code: Challenge, Complexity, and Connection

In organizations, when we optimize for efficiency, we may be robbing people of the chance to be creative and have new ideas. Creativity and innovation are skills. They are muscles we need to build and maintain if we want them to work well.

I recently spoke to Matt Beane about his book The Skill Code. According to Beane, mastering a new skill requires three things: challenge, complexity, and connection. The skill must be a challenge – we need to be focused and close to the edge of our current ability. Complexity means we need to understand the connection between the skill we’re learning and what we already know how to do. Finally, we need a connection between the mentor and learner that allows us to feel safe. When we over-optimize for efficiency, experts do the complex skills and beginners never get the chance to observe, fail, and learn.

Creating Space for Innovation

Does your organization make space for people to enter default mode? To practice beginner’s mind? To forget precedent and create from nothing?

3M is one organization that has attempted to infuse time for innovation and creative thinking into its culture. The company encourages employees to set aside 15% of their work time to pursue innovative ideas. According to Jayshree Seth, 3M’s Chief Science Advocate, this 15% culture is what pushed one of their researchers to come up with the idea of a sustainable, plastic-free packaging solution. The paper-based, recyclable packaging material, which stores flat and expands to create a 3D structure that can withstand tremendous forces, was launched in 2022.

As an innovator, how do you create more time to generate ideas? As a leader, how do you know if your company is creating enough freedom from the past to think of new possibilities?

In the IN-OVATE model from my book Driving Innovation from Within, I offer an acronym to remind companies how to unleash their intrapreneurial employees as a source of innovative ideas. The “O” stands for options. Companies and intrapreneurs need to generate hundreds of options to have a chance to find innovation success.

Let’s do the math. If – as a macro study of internal innovation suggests – we can expect about a 15% chance of an innovation making it to the next stage, this means that to have just four successful innovations a year, we need to explore more than 1,000 ideas annually to fill our funnel from idea to hypothesis, test, and finally launch.

Wyoming being the first U.S. state or territory to allow women to vote underscores a vital prerequisite of innovation. We should try to pursue choices rather than decisions. To decide means to stop doing something you are doing, to literally kill off something (“cide” means “to kill” in Latin and is the root of words like homicide and suicide). We should instead seek to choose, from nothing, as if we just arrived with no baggage or precedent.

Here are three ways you can make space to create in your own work and organization:

  1. Experience new things: Be like a sponge absorbing information from different fields, peers, and competitors. Sheena Iyengar encourages us to look inside and outside the box of our own industry.
  2. Get into default mode: According to Jung, there are three best ways to set your brain into default mode: Sleep or take a nap (bed), relax while you’re awake (bath), or get outside of your normal environment by moving around or traveling (bus).
  3. Master new skills: Remember Beane’s advice that it takes challenge, complexity, and connection for new skills to stick.