Improve Your Ability to Innovate

In December’s Harvard Business Review, researchers identify five skills that separate true innovators from other smart people. What makes one person an innovator, able to trailblaze a path in the media jungle, and another person a wanderer, lost and seeking direction? Here, find descriptions of the skills and my practical advice.

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post about the ways that young people are innovating media instead of taking the traditional route and working their way up the corporate ladder. In his New York Times piece, David Carr writes, “For every kid that I bump into who is wandering the media industry looking for an entrance that closed some time ago, I come across another who is a bundle of ideas, energy and technological mastery.”

In December’s Harvard Business Review, researchers identify five skills that separate true innovators from other smart people. CNN.com reports: “Because the ability to think differently comes from acting differently, [Hal] Gregersen says anyone can become a better innovator, just by acting like one. ‘Studies have shown that creativity is close to 80 percent learned and acquired,’ he told CNN. ‘We found that it’s like exercising your muscles — if you engage in the actions you build the skills.’

These fives skills are associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking.

What makes one person an innovator, able to trailblaze a path in the media jungle, and another person a wanderer, lost and seeking direction? Below, find descriptions of the skills (from CNN) and my practical advice for developing each.

Associating: The ability to connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields.

Take some old newspapers and/or magazines and cut out random bits of text. The longer the phrases you snip, the more challenging this exercise will be.

Place all your clippings in an envelope and pick two or three. Sit down in front of a blank piece of paper or your computer and craft a one-page story (any topic!) with a beginning, middle, and end. You must use all the phrases exactly as you appear on the clippings. When you get better at this exercise, try fitting more found words and phrases on the page and use less of your own language – remember, your story should be coherent!

Questioning: Innovators constantly ask questions that challenge the common wisdom. They ask “Why?”, “why not?” and “What if?”

Next time you go out to dinner with a good friend (this works best in a one-on-one situation), be prepared to ask a lot of questions. When your friend tells you a story, question everything he/she says. For example, if your friend says, “I met him for drinks on the Lower East Side,” you can ask, “Why did you decide to go to the Lower East Side?”.

You will probably listen to yourself and realize how annoying you are, but your friend will be caught off guard – I can guarantee that your friend never asked him/herself “why” before performing an action. Your questions will inspire both of you to step away from the casual nature of story-telling and reconsider your impulses.

My best friend is really good at questioning; it’s a natural instinct and one commonly found among journalists who are determined to get to the bottom of the story. She will frequently interrupt me and ask questions like “why did you feel that way?” or “why do you think that is?”. The questions CAN be annoying, but I am grateful that she can fuel my introspection.

Observing: Discovery-driven executives scrutinize common phenomena, particularly the behavior of potential customers.

The next time you’re in a waiting room (doctor’s office, airport, Department of Motor Vehicles, etc.), look around the room and find an object that begins with every letter of the alphabet. Proceed in alphabetical order from A to Z. A = Applejacks spilled on the floor; B = Brad Pitt look-alike; C= Cupcakes; etc. Continue until you reach Z.

Experimenting: Innovative entrepreneurs actively try out new ideas by creating prototypes and launching pilots.

The next time you’re not sure what to eat for dinner, go home and use only the ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator, a la Iron Chef. In some ways, Experimenting is similar to Associating. To experiment, you will probably have to fuse two or more ideas that have never been fused together before. Create a meal only from the ingredients at hand. Eat the meal.

If you think it’s delicious, then you have created a successful experiment, and you will have more confidence during future experiments. If your experiment was a failure, don’t worry! The next time you don’t know what to eat will be another opportunity to be creative.

Networking: Innovators go out of their way to meet people with different ideas and perspectives.

Go to Google.com. Type “opposite of (fill in your name here)”. Find the first search result that leads to someone’s personal blog. For example, when I type “opposite of Laryssa”, The Opposite of Tomato is the first blog that appears in the search results.

Peruse some of the blog entries, get to know the writer’s interests, and understand the writer’s purpose/mission. Find a way to contact the writer (either by e-mail or through a comment) and share at least one positive thing about the blog and one small commentary on a blog entry or specific point. This is a painless way to learn how to relate to all types of people.

When you feel comfortable with this exercise, apply all of the above in a real-life situation to learn something new about a person who may never otherwise know.

Do you have any unique and practical exercises?

(Photo by Photo Denbow)

1 thought on “Improve Your Ability to Innovate”

  1. I was out on the CNN/Money website getting my daily does of new and I saw the story about “Class of ’09: They got jobs!” and you story caught my eye because I graduated from the U of MD (Class of 1984). The article led me to your blog and on-line magazine. I was reading your article on “Improve Your Ability to Innovate” and under the networking skill when it said to google the opposite of your name and then find the first blog and read it, investigate and then try to contact the writer through an email or comment. I thought, I am on a nerw blog now why not leave the writer a comment. So, i am doing just that. You sound like a happy fun loving person, I enjoyed reading you blog and will look forward to coming back to read future postings. Good luck in this and your other endeavors.

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