A common misconception about innovation is that it’s all about technology; it’s not. So, if your job doesn’t have you occupied with developing or implementing the latest and greatest in bleeding edge technology, or if you’re in a job that’s operational in nature, you may wonder how to be an innovator.
Before we begin, let’s be clear on what we mean by “innovation.” I like the definition by the Conference Board of Canada:
“…the process through which economic and social value is extracted from knowledge through the generation, development, and implementation of ideas to produce new or improved strategies, capabilities, products, services, or processes.”
How to Be an Innovator
Based on this definition of innovation, I suggest four actions that are within your control and that you can do to be an innovator at work:
- Connect to your own creativity
- Develop your curiosity and observational skills
- Develop openness for novelty, and tolerance for ambiguity and complexity
- Develop your innovation skills
We’ll explore these actions in the following paragraphs.
Action 1: Connect to Your Own Creativity
Creativity fuels innovation. As individuals, we need to bring our creativity to work: it’s what allows us to use our imagination to connect to new possibilities. Creativity drives creative thinking and without creative thinking, we can’t drive innovation.
Here’s the sad thing about creativity: when asked, most people don’t think they are creative – they think of creativity as something artists do. What they don’t realize is that creativity is about the attitudes we have, the beliefs we hold, and the ways we think. For me, creativity is an attitude that transcends paradigms and beliefs. It’s a soul-level yearning to fulfill a purpose, uniquely contribute, and leave a mark.
Given these definitions of creativity, it’s easy to see that, in reality, all people are creative. And, regardless of our level of ability, creativity can be enhanced – it is teachable, and it improves with practice.
Here are a couple of ways to connect to your own creativity.
Reframe what it means to be creative
Interesting research conducted by G.A. Davis (1986) summarized the personality traits of creative people. Here’s what he found.
Creative people are curious, independent, open-minded, perceptive, risk-taking, energetic, industrious, original, persevering, self-aware, experimenting, flexible, playful, questioning and sensitive.
Surely you recognize yourself in some, many, or perhaps even all of these characteristics.
Learn more about creativity
- Creativity has hit mainstream and is now recognized as a critical skill for children, leaders and employees alike. Get Time Magazine’s 2018 Special Edition – The Science of Creativity.
- Check out our article on Reading for Creativity for references to some great books that can help you connect to your creativity.
- TED Talks has a great stream of videos related to creativity. Here’s one of my favourites: 6 TED Talks that Will Boost your Creativity
Action 2: Develop Your Curiosity and Observation Skills
New research by Harvard University Professor Francesca Gino builds the Business Case for Curiosity.
Her research highlighted important insights about curiosity and its relationship to innovation.
Cultivating curiosity helps us adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures. We’re living in a VUCA world – one that’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. When we use curiosity to approach challenges, we view tough situations more creatively, find more creative solutions, and think more deeply and rationally about decisions.
On the job, this translates into fewer decision-making errors, more innovation and positive changes in both creative and non-creative jobs, reduced group conflict, more open communication and better team performance.
We use observation skills to gain information and tap our imaginations by observing someone or something. Observation skills allow us to go beyond the obvious. Honed well, they allow you to fully engage with your external environment by noticing what you see, hear, touch, smell and taste, as well as engaging with your internal environment by noticing how you feel about a situation and what your intuition tells you.
Here are some ways you can develop observational skills.
Research conducted by Puccio, Mance, Murdock (2011) at the International Centre for Studies in Creativity identified mindfulness, sensitivity to environment and sensing gaps as critical creative problem-solving skills. These skills support your ability to observe what’s going on around you. “Mindfulness” is defined as attending to thoughts, feelings and sensations relative to the present situation. “Sensitivity to environment” is about having an awareness of your physical and psychological surroundings. “Sensing gaps” is about becoming consciously aware of discrepancies between what currently exists and is desired or required.
The MIT Office of Digital Learning has developed an online resource called Improving Observation Skills.
Action 3: Develop Openness to Novelty, and Tolerance for Ambiguity and Complexity
In the innovation world, openness to novelty, tolerance for ambiguity and tolerance for complexity are known as “the big three” skills. Master these skills and you’ll be an innovator on the innovation fast-track at work.
Openness to novelty is having the ability to entertain ideas that at first seem outlandish or risky. It’s about deferring judgment, staying open to possibilities and remembering that innovation involves risk-taking because you’re changing things.
Tolerance for ambiguity is having the ability to deal with uncertainty and to avoid leaping to conclusions.
Tolerance for complexity is having the ability to stay open and persevere without being overwhelmed by large amounts of information, interrelated and complex issues, and competing priorities.
Action 4: Develop Your Innovation Skills
The Conference Board of Canada sponsored research with industry and government to isolate the unique contribution that an individual’s skills, attitudes and behaviours make to an organization’s innovation performance.
They found that innovation skills can be grouped into four key skill sets:
- Creativity, problem-solving and continuous improvement skills
- Risk assessment and risk-taking skills
- Relationship-building and communication skills
- Implementation skills
Learn more about these four skillsets and how to assess and develop your innovation skills in our previous blog post, How to Develop Innovation Skills.
By Janice Francisco, CEO, Principal Innovation Consultant, Facilitator and Coach, BridgePoint Effect, and Chair and Advisor to the Conference Board of Canada’s Council on Commercialization and Innovation.