CHICAGO — “Don’t let ‘no, because’ be the first words out of your mouth,” said Duncan Wardle, former head of innovation and creativity at Disney and the opening keynote speaker at IFT FIRST, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and trade show on July 17.

“When a team member presents a new idea, respond ‘yes, and’ in order to encourage innovation.”  

Wardle said it’s important that today’s leaders fuel the next generation of food innovators with the skills of cultivating creativity, intuition, curiosity and imagination. Why? Because the skills cannot be programmed.

“You can program AI (artificial intelligence) to paint the Mona Lisa, and it might be able to recreate it perfectly stroke by stroke, but it’d be incredibly difficult to program a machine to possess the curiosity and creativity that prompted Da Vinci to paint her in the first place,” Wardle said.

“While AI may one day replicate the core human traits, I don’t believe it’s coming anytime soon,” he said. “The next decade belongs to those of us who can tap into our creativity, our intuition, our curiosity and our imagination, and leverage these uniquely human skills to disrupt and innovate the next wave of incredible discoveries.”

Managers and leaders need to be open and positive and avoid focusing on potential barriers, he said, adding that teams should be encouraged to color outside the lines.

“Think like a child,” he said. “We were all born creative, but then we went to school and then college and got a job and most likely found ourselves being told ‘you’re not creative’ or ‘leave those ideas to the creative team.’”

One of the first lessons children are taught is “to color in-between the lines.” But being creative is more than picking a color of crayon, it’s about breaking through the barriers, the lines. It’s about the ability to think creatively and solve problems.

“A skill that — within the disruption of the next decade — will become one of the most highly sought in the world, and a skill that has been buried within all of us since childhood, just waiting to be woken up again,” Wardle said.

He explained that we have more than one brain. The outer brain controls our logic and reason and planning skills. The inner “reptilian” brain is the one responsible for “gut” feelings.

“It’s your intuition and the fight or flight response,” Wardle said. “It’s this symbiotic relationship between our inner and outer brains that make humans uniquely capable of uncovering massive innovation.”

AI — as of now — is not curious or imaginative. Humans are. Humans can ask “why” and “what if.” Asking these questions requires encouragement from leadership in companies.

“Insight for innovation comes on the fourth or fifth ‘why,’ but your data only stops on the first ‘why,’” Wardle said.

Fueling curiosity is possible when you create an atmosphere of playfulness in the workplace. After all, most people are not at a desk when they get their best ideas. It’s when they are relaxing or doing something enjoyable.

Bringing it back to his days with Disney, Wardle said to think about how the company does not have “employees” and “customers” but rather they have “cast members” and “guests.” He ended by encouraging the audience to be brave, to color outside the lines.

“The opposite of bravery is not cowardice,” Wardle said. “It’s conformity.”