Making Innovation a Discipline
A discipline is learning a skill in such a way that serves as a vehicle for creating value. Most people are skillful at least one thing but why would anyone want to make innovation their discipline? Further could anyone even be disciplined in innovation?
If you ask most CEOs if they want more innovation they’d say YES and make it consistent and predictable so I can forecast how my firm will increase shareholder value. In effect the CEO wants innovation to be a discipline something that’s elusive to most people including CEOs. However, should the average person aspire to being more innovative? Absolutely!! Being an innovator is synonymous with being a problem solver and solving problems leads to a higher quality of life (along with increasing shareholder value)!!
Innovation drives competitiveness, critical to increasing quality of life and widely considered an important capability. It’s very difficult to argue that innovation is a bad thing when a simple Google search of the term innovation yields more than 420 million citations in less than 1 second most of them positive. However, innovation is like the weather: It’s widely discussed, poorly understood while being critically important. So how does one approach the topic of becoming more innovative? Perhaps an old adage is useful: “How does one eat an elephant?” The obvious answer: one bite at a time.
What I’m suggesting is that innovation can be broken down into the simplest elements providing a road-map a person can follow on their journey to becoming innovators and more effective problem solvers. I submit that innovative people, who become skilled problem solvers, have a higher quality of your life. If you accept this then everyone should aspire to becoming more innovative: But how? I’ll address this question in my column.
Becoming an innovator is like learning to ride a bicycle: At first it’s daunting, then it’s easy and fun and finally it’s mastered and never forgotten. In effect, it’s becomes a discipline. Innovation, treated the same way, can not only mastered but constantly improved.
So the real question is: How does one teach, learn and master innovative behavior so it becomes a discipline?
My hypothesis is simple:
· Everyone is capable of, and desires to be, innovative;
· Innovative behaviors can, and must be, taught, learned and mastered over a lifetime;
· Once mastered innovative behaviors become a discipline never forgotten;
· Innovators and problem solvers are synonymous;
· Innovators solve their more problems leading to a more fulfilling life;
· Innovation is fun to teach and do.
So what’s an actionable definition of innovation? Innovation in its simplest definition is a human response to change creating something valuable in the present. It’s important to realize that all human beings are born with the ability to innovate because our DNA demands we adapt to change to survive. Simply put we are a successful species because we are innovative.
So what happened? Why is being innovative so difficult and even rare? Life got easy. We don’t need to solve life preserving problems today to survive and we’re educated “not to be innovative”. Curiosity and inquiry are the roots of all innovation and our educational system gives credit for answers and not questions. Worse a curious, potentially innovative, student gets punished in our educational system.
Being innovative demands a person to recognize the changes around them, being curious enough to investigate what the change means and creating options for responding to this change as a way of creating value.
So the first steps towards becoming more innovative are:
1. Recognize and analyze the changes around you;
2. Allow your natural curiosity to characterize the change;
3. Develop a hypothesis for responding to the change;
4. Put your hypothesis into action;
5. Assess the results;
6. Create a new hypothesis;
7. And repeat the process until you have a way to create value however you define it.
This process should be familiar since it’s the scientific method and while simple in form it’s difficult to master. All innovations have common features applying to all circumstances while concurrently being situational or impacted by the context in which innovation occurs. The situational element of innovation is one reason why innovative methods, which work for one company, will not work for another.
Especially challenging is the fact that innovative people are not innovators by themselves. The “lone innovator” is the exception and not the rule. This fact alone raises many questions about how collaboration should occur something for a future article.
The common features of innovation are:
1. Collaborative – innovation occurs in groups of people often engaged in playful activities;
2. Involving diversity and many skills – innovation occurs when a group of people with different skills come together to respond to a given change;
3. Results from trial and error – experimentation is the cornerstone of learning allowing people to intelligently respond to change;
4. Driven by inquiry – the natural curiosity of children needs to be reinforced as a way of learning by doing and being opened minded about what’s possible;
5. Expanded by imagination – a person’s imagination is how they connect unrelated dots in ways that are unexpected and innovative; Innovators have a “child-like” imagination that is unbiased by their experiences;
6. The process has to be fun – an innovator requires a playful point of view that is motivated by the individual’s passion.
These characteristics need to be recognized and embraced by would be innovators.
So what are the critical success factors for becoming an innovator? They’re actually straight forward, common sense, normal activities we all embrace without even knowing it. It’s by recognizing these success factors that one begins transforming innovative behavior from an art form into a discipline.
The critical success factors of innovative behavior are:
1. Only people can innovate because only people can think. Innovative behavior requires the innovator thinking about the changes they’re experiencing and respond accordingly.
2. This thought process needs to be educated which means that innovative people have some past experience from which to understand the change occurring. This is why innovation is a collaborative effort involving many people and not just one person. When confronted with change an innovator asks: “What’s this like?” not “Why did this happen?”, “What does this means?” or “What do I do?” By asking “What is this like”? Innovative people begin to understand the change.
3. Learning must occur in multiple ways: by doing, watching, listening, writing and reading about the change. People must recognize their preferred way of learning and use this as a tool for becoming innovative.
4. The environment needs to be safe for inquiry with failure allowed and even encouraged. Learning by experiment, which is learning by experiencing, is the most impactful form of education and must be promoted. However, those who can learn from the experiences of others are who I consider “Master Innovators” and to be emulated.
1. Being innovative is in our “DNA” – everyone can innovate;
2. Innovation has common and situational features both of which need to be recognized – innovation is fractal;
3. Change drives ALL innovation – the innovator must be attentive to these changes;
4. Human curiosity is at the root of responding to change – skillful inquiry is the first step on the journey to becoming innovative;
5. Effective inquiry must become a discipline – knowing how to ask questions, satisfying the innovator’s curiosity, is a critical success factor;
6. The environment for inquiry, and failure, must be “safe” – threatening environments inhibit innovative behavior and punishing honest inquiry is fatal;
7. Every innovator must know how they learn – knowing one’s self allows for the innovator to understand the changes they’re experiencing on their terms;
8. Applying the scientific method works when responding to change and developing innovations – it’s easy to use and familiar to most;
9. Innovative behavior is collaborative – diversity drives innovation with the “lone innovator” being a myth;
10. Finally becoming an innovator is “child’s play” – if you can recall how we are at 5 years old, then mimicking that behavior in adulthood, helps a person take their first steps towards becoming more innovative. (Why 5 years old? Because at 5 years old a person is capable of having an honest question, but not an answer, they’re questions are not biased by their experiences and they haven’t gone to school yet (and gotten “ruined”).