Boosting Entrepreneurial Success through Decision Weaving

Source: aainayyahm via Wikimedia Commons

Bringing about positive change is not easy.  The path to meaningful and desired innovation is often an uphill one that calls on us, and our teams, to make decisions, decisions, decisions.  Small, medium, and large decisions.  Today we may need to decide between one opportunity and another, how to handle this persistent business snag, and what to do about that emergent difficulty.  

Each decision makes demands on our attention and thinking.  We need to gather (ferret out) information, put pieces together, make sense of the emerging patterns, all the while keeping track of what each newly learned fact, possibility, or interpretive slant means for our goals and aspirations.  

And it’s not just the large attentional load of identifying, finding, and integrating incoming factual information.  There’s how we feel about what we learn that also must be dealt with.  The weighing and balancing is shot through with feelings of excitement, or enthusiasm, or anxious tuggings and doubts.  Is it possible?  Am I (or the team) reading this situation quite as it is?  What if the other route – the one we’re choosing not to take – is really the best one?  What really should our strategy be?  

We’re here in the heart of the process of both forming – and finding – a strategy.  This is what any new entrepreneurial endeavor must creatively grapple with.

An in-depth research dive into venture strategy creation

Two researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Stanford University joined forces to take an in-depth look at the creative process of forming and finding an entreprenurial strategy

To begin, the researchers began by identifying several new entrepreneurial ventures in different domains: culinary experiences, home services, and parking technology.  They started following the ventures (small, privately owned, professionally funded young firms) about one year after the firms were founded, and continued to follow them in four waves of data collection at 6–9 month intervals, as the ventures created, learned, experimented, and changed their strategies. 

The researchers collected and combed through many different sources of data: interviews with the top management team and other informants such as investors, archival data from company websites, social media, and the venture’s own records.  Obtaining data from multiple sources, and in real time, gave a bigger picture of the landscape of opportunities – and problems – at a given moment in time, and how those opportunities/problems were evaluated and perceived by different stakeholders. 

The magic of sequential focus – plus stepping stones

So what did all this in-depth delving into entrepreneurial strategy reveal?

Two key insights emerged. 

(1) Ventures that later proved to be successful did not try to do everything at once.  Rather, successful ventures largely concentrated their time and efforts in one of the main areas of the enterprise at a time, sometimes for many months at a time.  This is what the researchers called “sequential focus.” 

Once “good enough” performance was reached in one (foregrounded) domain, then the team’s focus moved to a different previously backgrounded domain, before again circling back to the initial domain at a later point.  

But sequential focus was not the only important finding.  

(2) There were smaller, low-cost, opportunistic background moves called, by the researchers, “stepping stones.”  Successful venture teams were passively observing and peripherally learning incidental things in the nonfocal domain and taking small steps there, if that step could be readily accomplished.

Sequential focus, interleaved with the practice of stepping stones, together creates a mode of strategy formation/creation that the researchers captured with the description of “decision weaving.” 

Schematic of decision weaving with its sequential focus and stepping stones. Source: W. Koutstaal.

What sequential focus gives us

The cognitive costs of switching between even only two simple tasks are well-known.  Yet the cognitive costs of switching may be even higher when, rather than simple tasks, the switching is between complex multidimensional projects or components of a project.  

Without sequential focus, a team may end up, “doing a lot of things poorly” (p. 2295).  Or in the words of another failed venture leader, without it, a team may find themselves locked into a reactive mode, reacting with little time for thought, planning, or understanding, in “a constant pendulum, it’s just shifting back and forth and we’re always slightly out of balance” (p. 2302).

Sequential focus provides the needed leeway for learning.  It gives the mental time and space for drawing connections between actions and consequences, for exercising systematic controlled thought, and for developing one’s mental model of those connections of the then-in-focus domain.  Without a too-early stretching for perfection, sequential focus creates an essential buffer of flexibility, enabling resilient adaptation to changing circumstances.  

At the same time, stepping stones – temporarily placing some parts of what we need to do into the background of our thinking – provides the benefits of psychological distance (seeing the forest, not only the trees). It also allows space for purposively taking relatively easy, low-resource opportunistic actions and engaging in low-cost learning.   


Bendoly, E., Swink, M., & Simpson, W. P. III (2014).  Prioritizing and monitoring concurrent project work: Effects on switching behavior.  Production and Operations Management, 23, 847–860. doi: 10.1111/poms.12083

Ott, T. E., & Eisenhardt, K. M. (2020).  Decision weaving: Forming novel, complex strategy in entrepreneurial settings.  Strategic Management Journal, 41, 2275–2314. doi: 10.1002/smj.3189

Vandierendonck, A., Liefooghe, B., & Verbruggen, F. (2010).  Task switching: Interplay of reconfiguration and interference control.  Psychological Bulletin, 136, 601–626.  doi: 10.1037/a0019791

What’s Your Problem? Innovating by Self-Imposing Constraints: Using deliberately chosen constraints to reshape your creative problems

Giving challenges new shape! Source: Andrew Butko via Wikimedia Commons.


Asking someone, “What’s your problem?” can seem like a confrontational challenge.  It’s like saying, “So, tell me:  What’s irking you?  What is it that’s nagging you or getting under your skin, unsettling you?”

Yet problems are rarely so tightly and completely spelled out that there is no room for creativity in how we define the problem.  Because solutions and problems mutually inform one another, when posed in the right spirit, asking “What’s your problem” could be a well-timed, well-meaning, and well-informed impetus to exploring opportunities for new and creative solutions.  “What’s your problem?” can be a welcome invitation to creative thinking and creative problem finding.

In the many worlds in which we are called on to make things – design, engineering, art, education, everyday living – there is often an important difference between how a problem is presented to us, and what the problem really is (or could be).  Problems as presented are not problems fully and clearly defined.

But how do we get from the oftentimes muddy, vague, or indeterminate way a problem is presented – a presentation that may even subtly miss or misconstrue the vital nub of the issue – to a more clearly and precisely defined problem that more fully squares with the real issues at hand?

Getting particular about problem particulars

Although much research in design and engineering has focused on strategies for solving problems, fewer studies have focused on the earlier stages of problem exploration or problem discovery.  Still, there are some notable hints, including some new cues based on a recent study that took a fresh tack to addressing this question.

Let’s take a closer look at the findings from that recent study, led by a team of four researchers in industrial design, mechanical engineering, and psychology at Iowa State University and the University of Michigan.

The researchers started by pulling together two independent sources of publicly available data.  On the one side, they drew upon an existing database of presented problems relating to product design.  On the other side, delving into the records of a number of crowd-sourced design competitions and documents on award-winning designs, they compiled a set of discovered problems and solutions.  Then they systematically compared what was first given, in the presented problem, with how the problem was further unearthed (“dis-covered”) by different design teams.

Take their example of a challenge to design a “next generation” outdoor playground.  The “presented problem” might state a number of requirements, say, that the playground system must be modular, allowing the user to adjust the playground equipment to different sites and to modify the configuration to permit a wider and more varied set of experiences.  Other presented requirements might be that the playground equipment must be independently accessible by children in wheelchairs, and must be visually appealing in both urban and natural settings.

Given this design brief, one team identified and imposed some of their own particular constraints.  They decided that the playground should be especially intended for children between the ages of 6 to 12 years, and should take inspiration from the ways in which children of those ages are interested in relating to, and competing with, their friends during play.  Rather than modular structures, they thought of their system as involving “constellations” that could be readily re-configured into new challenging and inviting groupings and shapes.

Across a wide array of design challenges and specific proposed responses to those challenges, the researchers extracted 32 different “problem exploration patterns” or sorts of self-generated constraints.  Each type of constraint was a method that designers and innovative teams used to move from a comparatively vague or underspecified design problem to something more specific and definite that the designing team could better creatively imaginatively and concretely grapple with.  Sometimes it involved broadening the setting of the problem, at other times narrowing it.  Sometimes it involved redefining the desired outcome, at other times adding secondary functions, or describing conditions in the natural environment.

The researchers then compared how many voluntarily added constraints a given design included.  They also looked at whether each design – incorporating from only one to six different problem explorations patterns – was selected as a finalist, was chosen as a semifinalist, or was not selected at all.

So, did adding constraints boost creativity?

Let’s look at the picture of their findings below.

Self-imposed constraints and innovation prize-winning. Source: Adapted from Figure 9 of Studer et al. (2018) by W Koutstaal, with raw counts changed to percentages within each group.


The green and yellow bars represent projects that were chosen as finalists and semifinalists respectively; gray bars represent projects that were not selected as prizeworthy.

We can see that all of the projects that earned a finalist prize had more than one deliberately added constraint.  Indeed, more than half of all the finalist-winning projects incorporated 3 or 4 self-generated constraints (32% and 26% respectively). Additionally, about 22% of the finalist-winning projects had 5 or 6 voluntarily applied constraints.

The simple take-away:  Design teams that found several different ways to deliberately spell out their own constraints for the problem they had been given were more likely to develop prize-winning solutions.  The constraints they chose to impose on the initially provided problem could be related to any of several aspects – the setting, the goals, limitations, and/or stakeholders.  But rather than rigidly confining the designers into a narrow idea space, by adding their own constraints to the problem, and changing the shape of the problem they were solving, the designers were freed to generate innovative solutions that might otherwise have been beyond their reach.


Studer, J. A., Daly, S. R., McKilligan, S., & Seifert, C. M. (2018). Evidence of problem exploration in creative designs.  Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing, 32, 415–430.

Creativity: What’s privacy got to do with it?

An open-plan aquarium. Source: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons


How might a lack of privacy influence our creative thinking?  Our general common sense might suggest a number of reasons that being constantly “on view” for others to see us, as in an open-plan office, could bring with it cognitive costs.  Considerable mental effort may be needed to stay focused on one’s own work, and not be distracted by nearby sounds, movements, happenings, the coming and going of others.

But are we fully aware of all the different ways that lack of privacy might influence our thinking?  And, apart from simply asking people for their self-reports, how might we get a clearer and evidence-based understanding of how a lack of privacy impacts our thinking and making?

Let’s take a look at two highly creative experimental approaches – and the unique insights they provide – on the creativity-privacy connection.

—> For more see Wilma’s post: “Does an Open Office Plan Make a Creative Environment?: New support for the value of privacy at work.”

How does asking yourself action-related questions catapult creativity?

Source: Moh tch via Wikimedia Commons


What questions or ways of thinking could you adopt to give some fresh lift into your ideas –– like the bubble-blowing device –– expanding them and letting them take flight?

Coming up with good new ideas can seem like a mysterious and mysteriously murky process.  Where do good ideas come from?  Are there any tips, or tricks, or strategies, that we can draw on to help us generate good ideas –– or more of them, more often?

It might seem that we could just begin by asking people who come up with lots of good ideas:  How do you do it?  Tell me!

But that approach presupposes that such “good idea generators” know what it is that they do.  It presupposes that the good idea generators know how they think when they’re thinking creatively.  It also presupposes that a good idea generator can articulate (convey or tell us) what it is that they are doing.

Sadly, neither presupposition is often met:  The processes that a good creative idea generator uses are often somewhat obscure and opaque (perhaps subconscious) even to themselves.  So precisely and clearly telling us what they’re up to during their innovative idea discovery process may not be at all easy, or even possible.

But all is not lost. . .

—> For more see: “Using Action Ideas to Boost your Creative Idea Search

What helps us to recognize good novel ideas?

Source:Flickr: Smelling the Roses via Wikimedia Commons


Not every good new idea gets the recognition it deserves. Promising novel ideas are often overlooked, ridiculed, or dismissed. But why?

Read more at:

Of Puppies, Play, and the Pursuit of Creative Insights

Puppy is to dog, as colt is to . . . .  Source: Jonathan Kriz via Wikimedia Commons

Puppy is to dog, as colt is to . . . . 
Source: Jonathan Kriz via Wikimedia Commons

Awakening our creativity with a few simple words. . . .

How much do you think creativity is something enduring and permanent that remains constant across time, that is, you either have it or you don’t?  Or how much do you think creativity depends on the situation or context you are in, and so fluctuates up and down?

This is the topic of Wilma’s latest Psychology Today blog post. For more please see.

Play, Newness, and You: How our environments help sustain – or squelch – innovation

KidTribe hula hoopers photographed by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons

KidTribe hula hoopers photographed by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons

What leads us to try new things? Although there are clear individual differences in our openness to novel experiences, an often overlooked factor that shapes –– and either propels or stalls ­­–– our readiness to explore and to innovate is our day-to-day environment. 

The powerful ways in which daily environments can shape responses to newness and innovative behavior are strikingly revealed in the contrasting behaviors of animals living in the wild compared to their zoo-living peers.

—> For more, and some questions for you to think about, see Wilma’s full Psychology Today blog post here.

Innovating Minds – coming mid-September 2015!

Innovating Minds Cover

We expect our new book, based on the latest information from our publisher, to be published and available by mid-September 2015!

You can preorder the book at, for example, Amazon here.

Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change will be published by Oxford University Press (ISBN: 9780199316021) and is designed to be valuable for readers coming from a variety of different backgrounds, including practitioners as well as students from such fields as the arts, design, education, engineering, management, and the social sciences.

As we explain in the opening sentences of Innovating Minds:

“This book invites us to discover how we can all become more creative thinkers and doers. A central question at the heart of this book is: How can we more flexibly and responsively bring about positive change in our world and in ourselves?

We will ask you to actively work through ideas as, together, we explore a new way of understanding our own and others’ thinking. The science-based ‘thinking framework’ that we will learn can help each of us—as individuals and as groups, teams, or organizations—to be more creative, innovative, and mentally agile.

A primary message of our book is that positive change and creativity can be encouraged through gaining a better understanding of the ways in which our thinking really works.”

We’ll post updates as we get closer to the publication date.

Here’s more about the book from our publisher:

A groundbreaking, scientific approach to creative thinking

From entrepreneurs to teachers, engineers to artists, almost everyone stands to benefit from becoming more creative. New ways of thinking, making, and imagining have the potential to bring about revolutionary changes to both our personal lives and society as a whole. And yet, the science behind creativity has largely remained a mystery, with few people aware of the ways we can optimize our own creative and innovative ideas.

Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity To Inspire Change offers a perspective, grounded in science, that allows us to achieve both individual and collective creative goals. Wilma Koutstaal and Jonathan Binks draw upon extensive research from brain, behavioral, and organizational sciences to present a unique five-part “thinking framework” in which ideas are continually refined and developed. Beyond scientific research, Innovating Minds also describes the everyday creative challenges of people from all walks of life, offering insights from dancers, scientists, designers, and architects.

The book shows that creativity is far from a static process; it is steeped with emotion and motivation, involving the dynamic interactions of our minds, brains, and environments. Accordingly, the book challenges readers to put the material into use through thinking prompts, creativity cross-checks, and other activities.

Vibrant and engaging, Innovating Minds reveals a unique approach to harnessing creative ideas and putting them into action. It offers a fascinating exploration of the science of creativity along with new and valuable resources for becoming more innovative thinkers and doers