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How Innovators Think

Posted 3 years ago

The nature of innovation

Innovation has many definitions. But perhaps the most useful definition is not what it is, but what it does. Innovation is taking advantage of the opportunities that problems present.

To provide a little more detail, I like the way author Scott Anthony breaks it down into a three-step process:

  • Find a problem that currently exists for your customers or your organisation
  • Develop a different and better way to address the problem
  • Test and iterate until the solution fits

There exists a plethora of literature and an abundance of disciplines (design thinking, lean methodology, disruptive innovation, etc) that expound on this process, and delve deeper into the three steps and how they should work. They all have some value. The best innovation practitioners tend to take elements from all schools of thought and weave them together to achieve the practical outcomes they seek.

But at the end of the day, regardless of the language used to describe it, innovation occurs when people capitalise on the opportunity of solving a problem.

But what makes them want to do this?


How innovators think and view problems

Many studies have attempted to unpack how innovative ideas are formed. In 2009, a six-year study surveying 3,000 creative executives confirmed what many other scholars had suggested – there are five key traits that enable innovation. They are:

  1. Association. A cognitive skill that allows creative people to make connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.
  2. Questioning. Knowing when and how to ask “what if”, “why”, and “why not” at the right moments, to challenge the status quo and open up the bigger picture.
  3. Observation. An attention to detail and ability to closely observe the behaviour of others.
  4. Experimenting. The ability to try new experiences, to test and to fail and to try again.
  5. Networking. Great innovators have the ability to speak with and learn from people with whom they have little in common.

When approached with a problem that needs solving, innovators apply these skills almost without thinking. Their inquisitive nature allows them to start exploring possibilities immediately.

The good news? These traits do not have to be innate. They can be taught.


Learn how to think like an innovator.

The first step is observation. Try and sit in on some ideation sessions or meetings in which the leading innovators in your organisation set out to tackle current issues. If that isn’t feasible, YouTube can help.

Once you have observed, you need to apply. Workshop activities and scenarios can provide a safe platform to try out some techniques. You can also try to apply innovative thinking to your everyday life. Try and solve some of the everyday dilemmas that occur at home. What you come up with is less important than how you got there.

Finally, you need to master what you have learnt. Applying those skills to solve complex problems within an effective innovation system will consolidate your knowledge and lead to deep domain expertise.

But the real key to thinking like an innovator is practice. At work, at home, in your hobbies and side-hustles, with your kids, your pets and your friends – practice applying those five key innovative traits to identify and solve problems. Over time, those traits will become second nature.


How can organisations harness the power of innovative employees?

Effective innovation systems empower individuals and teams to apply innovative thinking to solve organisational challenges. The system determines how collaboration works, how ideas are managed and how projects are led, measured, and reported on. The quality of the system is the difference between innovation that generates impact, and innovation that goes nowhere.

Fortunately, just like innovative traits, the skills required to establish and operate within a thriving innovation system can also be learned.

And when innovative thinkers have a healthy innovation system to play in? That’s when the real fun begins.


Impact Innovation offers comprehensive training programs to increase the innovative capacity of teams and individuals. Using our proprietary Skills Navigator tool, we can help you understand the current skills gaps within your organisation and tailor a training program that is relevant, targeted, and focused on generating innovation outcomes for your organisation. Contact us to find out more.


Reference: The Little Black Book of Innovation, by Scott Anthony