As an adult educator and organizational development/change consultant with a Master’s of Science in Creativity and Change Leadership, I’m fascinated by how people in organizations learn to be more innovative. Indeed, much of my work over the past twenty years has involved observing challenges and sensing gaps in how organizations learn to be more innovative. When I talk about innovation with clients, one question keeps coming up: How to be innovative at work?
The answer lies in figuring out how to recognize what innovation is in the context of your work and in adopting (and adapting) a process for innovating that integrates easily into your workday. Being innovative at work also means connecting with your creativity and thinking preferences for engaging in innovation.
Before we begin, let’s be clear on what we mean by “innovation.” In previous blogs, I’ve highlighted a great definition by the Conference Board of Canada:
The Conference Board of Canada defines innovation as 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.
Based on this definition, what does it mean to be innovative as you approach your everyday work?
Being innovative at work takes a three-prong approach.
- Find opportunities to be innovative at work through incremental innovation—fixing things to deliver more value.
- Engage others to help you and learn the rules of the innovation game by adopting a process for innovation; we suggest Creative Problem Solving.
- Discover your thinking preferences for engaging in innovation to help you be more productive as you approach innovation.
How to Be Innovative at Work: Incremental Innovation
As you go about your work, you’ve likely come across a situation that bugs you, one that you’d like to fix. Something that seems odd, doesn’t work so well, keeps tripping you up and might even be so bothersome that you find yourself saying, “I hate it when that happens!”
That’s the stuff of innovation: it’s about finding, developing and implementing ideas that address a real challenge and create value for you, your company and whatever “customer” your job serves, be it an internal or an external client.
Thus, innovation starts with identifying a challenge that you would like to address. This doesn’t mean you should take on more than you can handle. You don’t have to “boil the ocean.” You will find many opportunities for incremental innovation. Incremental innovation is about making a series of small or continuous improvements to processes, products or services associated with your work to improve efficiency, effectiveness, productivity, competitiveness and value.
Innovation Is a Team Sport
You don’t have to go it alone! Innovation is a team sport; it takes many people, collaborating, communicating and focussing on producing a specific outcome to bring something of value to life.
So, when you find a problem and you’ve got ideas on how to fix them, start by finding others who share your pain. A good starting point is with your own team members and your boss, or any others in the organization who feel the same way. Get them focused on helping you find options to get rid of this pain.
Once you’ve got some ideas, choose the better ones and start to refine them. You can do this on your own or with some of the others who share your pain. Develop a prototype of your solution. Then, evaluate the strength of your solution by answering the following questions:
- What value does it offer that the current way of doing business does not?
- What becomes possible and what can be avoided by our solution?
- Who gains and who would be impacted if we were able to implement our solution?
Once you’ve got a sense of this, take your prototype and your thinking on the value of this solution to others who can help you advance your cause – maybe your team, your boss, your boss’s boss or other decision-makers in the organization. Cut to the chase: tell them about the problem you see and the value you think you can create if your solution is implemented. Tell them you’d like to share your solution and get their feedback. Tell them you’d like their help in finding a way to get it implemented.
The process from here might not be a straight line to successful implementation. It may require some rework, patience, approval by governance groups, or a complete rethink. Innovation has been referred to as the hardest work you will ever love. It’s not easy and in the end, when something good arises from all the effort, you can take pride in the fact that you met the question “how to be innovative at work” head-on.
Creative Problem Solving as a Process for Innovation
What I describe above is, actually, a process for innovation. Interestingly, research shows that when faced with a challenge, we all engage in a universal process of innovation. It’s helpful for the team to use a shared process for innovation so that everyone is following the same path and a shared language with which to navigate it (i.e., to be using the same terminology when speaking about innovation).
Because creativity drives innovation, I recommend the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) process as a shared innovation process to be innovative at work. CPS is a proven method for approaching a problem or challenge in an imaginative and innovative way. By its very nature, the CPS process produces ideas and options that are “creative,” meaning they are novel and useful. Its application brings clarity, ideas and action to the challenges you face.
At essence, CPS provides a framework to help you clarify and understand a challenge, generate ideas to resolve it, and then develop the ideas into workable solutions that can be implemented. The critical and creative thinking tools and techniques that are part of the process help you organize your thinking, collaborate more effectively with others and manage complexity and risks. Built into the CPS process are opportunities to monitor your progress as you move through the process, assess the kinds of thinking you need, and review the results you’re getting.
We teach Creative Problem Solving to individuals and organizations using the FourSight Thinking System™. We teach this process to individuals and teams in our courses Critical Thinking and Creative Problem Solving, Breakthrough Thinking, and Innovation Toolset.
To learn more about CPS, please refer to our article, How to Develop Innovation Skills.
Learn How You Engage in Innovation
Adopting an innovation process is only the first step. Research shows that we each have creative thinking preferences that we rely on as we engage in the innovation process. Each person has a stronger preference for working in one or more of the following steps of the process:
- clarify the challenge
- generate ideas
- develop ideas into solutions
- implement solutions to resolve the challenge.
These four creative thinking preferences show up as energy waves and have an impact on problem solving and innovation results. We have more energy to do the things we prefer to do, and we need a “creativity boost” to help us over the parts we don’t prefer to do.
You can learn about your creative thinking preferences by taking a ten-minute assessment called the FourSight Thinking Profile. Using this profile over the past sixteen years, we’ve helped countless individuals in organizations connect to their own creativity. Every time we do, people are amazed at how useful the results are and how accurately they describe their approach to innovation challenges. Take the assessment now on your own, or book a two-hour training to introduce FourSight to your entire team (includes the assessment for all team members and a debrief for the team).
In summary, being innovative at work takes a three-prong approach. First, find opportunities to be innovative at work through incremental innovation—deliver more value by fixing things that bug you. Second, engage others to help learn the rules of the innovation game by adopting a process for innovation; we suggest Creative Problem Solving. Third, discover your thinking preferences for engaging in innovation as a key to determining how to be more productive as you innovate.
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.