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)

The World Is Your Art Supply Store

During a cleaning spree this past weekend, I found all my old arts and crafts supplies. In three large boxes and some large shopping bags were all the unused arts and crafts supplies that I had collected over the past 23 and a half years. Needless to say, I found a lot of raw material for artistic inspiration.

During a cleaning spree this past weekend, I found all my old arts and crafts supplies. In three large boxes and some large shopping bags were all the unused arts and crafts supplies that I had collected over the past 24 and a half years. Needless to say, I found a lot of raw material for artistic inspiration.

Seeing these supplies in one place, the colored pencils and markers rolling off the table and spools of ribbons unraveling, I was sad and nostalgic for a time when I actually had nothing better to do than just play with these magical materials.

What happened to that part of me? When did I decide to trade oil pastels and felt for writing? I became rather sad.

However, after some thought, I learned a valuable lesson: the world should and can be your “art supply store”.

What inspired me as a child no longer does anything for me. I look at the scraps of gold fabric and fur, and I’m not really sure what I should do with them.

I worry: have I hit my creative peak? My brother jokes that most creative people hit their creative peak at 25. I’m getting close!

I try to be creative every day. I just use different raw materials now than I did when I was younger.

Look around you. Inspiration is something you don’t have to buy. Think about the people, places, and things that you love. Do they move you on a daily basis? Do they inspire action? Loving what surrounds you is a truly creative force.

Think about your feelings about politics and/or current events. Do they inspire action? Do you use tools like Facebook and Twitter as a creative outlet?

Certain raw materials are for certain people. Visual artists will always gravitate toward their medium of choice. However, anyone that wants to cultivate general creativity should accept that it’s alright and healthy to move from medium to medium.

What’s your current medium of choice and why? How do you think it reflects your current life situation and how do you think you can be even more creative using your medium of choice?

A First Person with Purpose

Can you rewrite your narrator? Not exactly sure how to present yourself? Doubting your identity, values, or beliefs? You will probably require a third person narrator. Desirous and outspoken? Diving headfirst into a goal or mission? You will have to flex your first person. Feeling like you only matter in relation to another person? In rare cases, you will want a second person narrator.

Last night, I picked up my grad school thesis for the first time since May.

I am not exaggerating. I was so sick of writing and revising it that I couldn’t even reread my work for six months.

Looking at it now, I realize how much a person can grow and change in half a year. Just think about all the things that have happened to you since May. Are you a different person now?

I am beginning to remember the ideas and emotions that consumed me while I was writing these short stories, and I am suddenly not sure if I want to continue where I stopped. I have greater insight and a better grasp on friendships/relationships.

Regardless, I feel ready to revise and add to it. But now I want to use the first-person (“I”) voice.

I wrote my original manuscript with a third person narrator, and my advisers frequently suggested that I experiment with the first person. At the time, I didn’t feel ready to explore the first person voice.

However, I think I understand my main character better. I can speak for her now. I plan to spend the next few weeks retyping the original manuscript with a first person voice.

While considering my own work, I am also starting to wonder: how I can apply shifts in narration to real-life situations?

Do you allow someone else to speak on your behalf? Could you find your own voice? Should you find your own voice?

For my fictional character, first person will mean that she will have to be more of who she is. She will be funnier, bolder, and more creative. She will make stronger decisions and assert herself in antagonistic situations.

Can you rewrite your narrator?

Not exactly sure how to present yourself? Doubting your identity, values, or beliefs? You will probably require a third person narrator. Desirous and outspoken? Diving headfirst into a goal or mission? You will have to flex your first person. Feeling like you only matter in relation to another person? In rare cases, you will want a second person narrator.

Trust that you will know which narrator to recruit. Pay attention during the quiet moments, and you will be ready to speak during the loud times.

(Photo by pedrosimoes7)

Children Challenge Your Creativity

True creativity is born from an insatiable need for self-expression. Have you ever thought about something creative that you might like to do? That you would do if you had more time? Would you cook an improvised meal? Would you knit a warm-weather accessory? Would you draw a graphic novel?

Even the most creative people sometimes lose sight of what it means to be creative, just for the heck of it. Work and other responsibilities pull us away from our creative impulses!

Sure, creative professionals might be doing something “creative” (if they’re lucky) at their jobs: designing book jackets for a publishing house or writing copy for ad campaigns. But I believe that true creativity is born from an insatiable need for self-expression.

Have you ever thought about something creative that you might like to do? That you would do if you had more time? Would you cook an improvised meal? Would you knit a warm-weather accessory? Would you draw a graphic novel?

If I had infinite amounts of leisure time, I would learn to play the guitar (a task which I have started and stopped numerous times), make jewelry, learn to sew, and write poetry.

However, many of these tasks require more than the time it takes to actually do them. These creative pursuits demand a meditative frame of mind, which sometimes takes hours to achieve. Think about it: would you be able to shift from a high-stress work assignment to writing a poem for fun without a break in between both tasks? I would be pretty impressed if you could.

For those of you that have trouble being creative, I have the perfect solution. My four-year-old cousin taught me that all anyone needs to rekindle creative spirit is to spend time with a child. Even better? Teach them a skill that will allow them to be creative, and you will find your immediately spark your own creativity.

When I was in college, I used to make beaded jewelry for myself. I even took classes at the Gem Cutters Guild of Baltimore. Putting together different color beads was a great break from the stresses (yes, stresses!) of college life. However, I hadn’t touched my bead box for at least two years when I suggested necklace-making to distract my cousin.

Teaching her required me to be creative because I had to explain the process in such a way that she would understand it. Helping her make the necklace required me to be creative because I had to direct her without getting in the way of her own creative process. Allowing a stuffed animal audience required my creativity because I had to accept that a pink unicorn was judging our performance.

So how was this activity my insatiable need for self-expression? Well, I really wanted to bead; I saw her as the perfect opportunity to fulfill my desire to do so. Most of the time I do want to be creative but have trouble accepting my desire; shouldn’t I be doing something more productive?

(Photo by net efekt)

The Great Pumpkin Is a Great Teacher

The fact that I couldn’t find canned pumpkin actually turned out to be a good thing. I would make homemade pumpkin puree instead; this would require me to purchase actual pumpkins, remove the seeds, and bake the pumpkin segments. I learned a valuable lesson: just because a shortcut exists doesn’t mean you should take it.

Last night, I cooked a giant pot of turkey-pumpkin chili for Jarad and my parents. I wanted to make it last weekend but didn’t because I couldn’t find canned pumpkin puree in any of the local supermarkets.

The fact that I couldn’t find canned pumpkin actually turned out to be a good thing. I would make homemade pumpkin puree instead; this would require me to purchase actual pumpkins, remove the seeds, and bake the pumpkin segments.

While I was cutting up the pumpkin and flinging fibrous pumpkin innards into the trash can, my parents kept asking, “Why are you wasting so much time and energy when you can buy pumpkin in a can?” Sure, making the puree myself was a more difficult and time-consuming process, but getting pumpkin all over my hands was therapeutic. It seemed an appropriate thing to do on the first day of fall.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to make my own puree if I had other things to do, but I have been spending a lot of time in front of the computer and felt like I needed to make something with my hands. Cutting up pumpkins was more a meditation than a chore.

Once my puree was complete, I roasted the pumpkin seeds, which turned out to be a healthy snack that I could eat during the actual chili-making process, which required 45 minutes of intense vegetable chopping.

Have you ever heard stories about inner city children who don’t understand that vegetables actually come from somewhere other than the supermarket? How can you blame them? They are so disconnected from the earth that they can’t imagine it. Whenever I cook something that requires extra, unnecessary effort, I feel like those children, like I’m missing some vital knowledge about life.

So, why am I spending so much time writing about pumpkins? I learned a valuable lesson: just because a shortcut exists doesn’t mean you should take it. Choose your shortcuts wisely and set aside time for doing some things “the long way”. People (ahem, my parents) might think you’re crazy, but you will learn something about yourself and appreciate technology more.