As a culture, we’re in love with the idea of genius. We point to people like Steve Jobs and Edison and think: They must be born with it. That type of innovation can’t be taught.
Maybe that’s true for a select handful of people. We’re not all going to popularize the lightbulb, or reinvent the phone. But that doesn’t mean we all can’t be more innovative. In fact, innovation is a baseline requirement for survival for many industries today. The idea that innovation is a natural talent that can’t be measured (let alone taught) is a pretense. It provides an excuse not to invest in making our companies, and ourselves, more innovative.
Punchline: you’re not born being innovative, you develop the ability. I study the science of innovation, and I know that highly innovative individuals and teams share certain capabilities and behaviors. While these may come easier to some people than others, they can most certainly be measured, taught and learned. Here are five things business leaders should know as they seek to improve innovation in their organizations.
1. Innovation Is Not Creativity
Part of the reason many people think innovation in an inborn, unteachable quality is they mistake innovation with creativity. While these terms are somewhat related, they’re not the same, and the distinction is important.
I believe a person's upbringing has a tremendous amount to do with their creativity (which, of course, is already set in stone if you’re reading this). There are ways to maximize your creative skills and many techniques to channel creativity, but I don’t see people actually becoming more creative. Innovation, on the other hand, is about harnessing a set of tools that enable you to discover new ideas and get the highest possible value out of them. Creativity helps with some of the steps in an innovation process, to make connections that others don’t see. But much of the process is centered around a rigorous analysis. An analysis that you can get better at by practicing.
Related Article: 4 Surprise Innovation Lessons From COVID-19
2. Intellect AND Emotions Matter
Research shows that our emotional reactions to problems can tell a lot about how innovative we are. If you become emotionally closed-off when you encounter a problem, you’re unlikely to find an innovative solution. People who have a cooler, calmer reaction to problems are more likely to see them as opportunities for innovation, and act accordingly.
Again, this is a skill that can be practiced and learned. In fact you’ve probably done it. Think about times when you were a young child and hated going to the doctor or dentist — you were sensitized to something that you believed would be uncomfortable or painful. Yet as an adult, all (well, most) of us are able to realize that while the doctor visit might be uncomfortable (who likes being stuck with a needle?) we’re cool-headed when going for another typical check-up or routine procedure. We’ve learned to react to the stimulus differently. If you learn to do this at work when a problem arises, you will be in a much better position to innovate.
3. Innovation Requires Both Invention and Advocacy
When I conduct innovation assessments for companies, I don’t just look at behaviors that lead to new ideas, because new ideas alone aren’t enough to spur innovation. Innovative teams and individuals must be also able to promote and advocate for those ideas. Correctly measuring these abilities requires scientifically-based assessment tools.
Some of the questions I use have to do with communication skills, others are about a person’s understanding of design processes, while still others are focused on leadership skills related to innovation. When you can measure everyone in an organization on these qualities, you can get a better picture of where, why and how innovation is happening within your organization. Then, you can figure out who you need to train up and what training they need.
Related Article: Building Innovation Practices With Staying Power
4. Bad Habits Can Be Overcome
Innovation is often a matter of how a person adapts to different situations. That’s something that can be taught, even to leaders and employees who haven’t demonstrated particularly innovative behaviors in the past. Here’s an example: In my innovation trainings, I teach people to avoid “bikeshedding.” This term is shorthand for the surprisingly common human tendency to focus on trivial details while neglecting more important matters. (The term gets its name from a hypothetical committee tasked with approving plans for a nuclear power plant, whose members might spend most of their time on trivial and easy to grasp tasks such as choosing materials for a staff bike shed.) By recognizing such unproductive behaviors, people can adopt behaviors more conducive to innovation.
5. Different Teams Need Different Levels of Innovation
Asking whether everyone needs to be innovative is a little like asking whether everyone needs to have an understanding of human health. The answer is yes. But different people require different levels of competency. (Someone caring for a young child or aging parent likely needs to know more about human health than a young single person, and a physician needs to know more than both of them.)
So, your accounting team might not need to be as innovative as your product development teams. But people throughout your organization should have at least a basic understanding of innovation, or else they might squash innovation by accident. For instance, if a sales team comes up with a new contract structure that will increase overall revenue, you want accountants who will recognize the value of the change and help facilitate it.
By determining how innovative different teams need to be — and then assessing to check where people actually are — business leaders can improve innovation throughout their organizations and create a competitive edge.
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