“Where will your next big idea come from?” asks the year’s final 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review. In its “Spotlight on Innovation,” HBR offers articles exploring issues ranging from open innovation to career paths for innovators to social technology tools that foster innovation. While game-changing innovations may not come about easily, the magazine argues, “the right organizational conditions can make a breakthrough more likely.” I would add the right mindset and practices can help you raise your own innovation quotient, and lead to new insights and actions that can benefit your work and your life.
The Innovator’s DNA
One article that may provoke you most is “The Innovator’s DNA,” where researchers Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen highlight the skills they believe necessary to be more of an innovator yourself. Innovators, they found, “actively desire to change the status quo, and regularly take risks to make that change happen.” The authors focus on discovery skills that, according to their six-year study, distinguish innovative entrepreneurs from other executives.
As I have noted throughout this blog, creative people are particularly fluent and flexible in their thinking–they generate and expose themselves to many ideas and perspectives. Dyer et al. found five particular skills to be part of an innovator’s DNA, all of which boost the competencies of fluency and flexibility:
1. Associating: This is the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated ideas. Key to flexibility, this practice is what Einstein called “Combinatorial Play“; the more multidisciplinary and open to combination you are, the more innovative power you can access. When Ebay founder Pierre Amidyar connected his own fascination with creating more efficient markets with the hobby of finding pez dispensers, voila.
2. Questioning: My working definition of innovation is “Improving what’s now and creating what’s next.” You can’t improve if you don’t constantly question. According the authors, innovative entrepreneurs ask “Why?”, “Why not?” and “What if?” The “What if” question can be incredibly powerful, both by imposing constraints on your thinking and by getting you to challenge your assumptions. Consider a challenge you now have and consider some of my favorite “What ifs…”: What if I had unlimited/no money/help? What if I had to finish this by X no matter what? What if I wanted to get fired/fail?
3. Observing: “Innovators carefully, intentionally, and consistently look out for small behavioral details…in order to gain insights about new ways of doing things.” Direct observation is built into innovative cultures like Toyota, and innovators usually are able to toggle between the creative polarities of seeing the big picture and noticing the telling details.
4. Experimenting: A fluent organization–which supports, shares, spreads and builds on ideas–also knows how to experiment. Innovative entrepreneurs, say the authors, create prototypes, launch pilots, and actively explore and teste out ideas. “I encourage our employees to go down blind alleys and experiment,” Jeff Bezos of Amazon says, with experiments like Kindle, though sometimes failing, ultimately leading to innovative success. Intuit founder Scott Cook says that allowing failure is “what separates an innovation culture from a normal corporate culture.”
5. Networking: We become more flexible the more we seek out other perspectives, whether through travel/working abroad (the authors found the more countries lived in, the more likely that experience would be leveraged to deliver innovation) or through good ole networking. Who haven’t you called lately? What conference/learning can you seek out? Expose yourself to different colleagues, cultures, attitudes and best practices.
These skills of innovative thinking dovetail nicely with my creative suggestions throughout this blog. The authors offer some more suggestions in their article. We both agree–practice can help you raise your innovation quotient and even alter your DNA…
Want more from Adam? Check out his Innovation on my Mind blog…