Oswald Letter

Develop these 5 skills to foster innovation

Businesswoman hand touch word innovation on screen, business conceptby Dan Oswald

At our company, one of our core values is innovation. We believe creativity and progressive thinking are critical to our success. I happen to share the opinion of former Ford CEO Mark Fields, who said, “Without innovation, I strongly believe companies die over time.”

In 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) conducted its 20th CEO Survey, covering the biggest issues facing our corporate leaders. When asked “Which one of the following do CEOs most want to strengthen to capitalize on new opportunities?” the number one answer was innovation. In fact, innovation ranked above digital and technology capabilities, customer experience, and big data and analytics. That’s how important innovation is to the CEOs surveyed by PwC.

As a manager, how do you cultivate the ability to innovate? According to a six-year study detailed in a 2009 Harvard Business Review article titled “The Innovator’s DNA,” there are five skills that are key to innovation. According to the article, the five skills, which the authors call “discovery skills,” separate innovative executives from the others:

  1. Associating. Innovators have the ability to make connections between “seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields.” It allows them to look at new ideas, breakthroughs, or technology in different industries and apply them to a problem they are facing. It can help them draw parallels between two separate situations and come up with new solutions that no one else has considered.
  2. Questioning. Innovators are curious! They are constantly asking questions. They want to understand how things work and why they are done a certain way. They not only want to understand, but they also want to challenge the status quo with their questions. Innovators ask big, challenging questions that can potentially disrupt their own business before someone else does.
  3. Observing. Innovators are always watching. They watch how their customers behave to better understand what drives their behavior. Innovators watch how a task is completed to see how it could be improved. They want to know the details because that’s where they will find the opportunity to make changes that lead to a breakthrough.
  4. Experimenting. Innovators like to test their ideas. They create prototypes or test processes to see if their idea has merit. They like to tear apart a product and put it back together differently to see how it works. They take existing products and make modifications to test out their ideas. Innovators are constantly tinkering with the status quo to see if they can make it better.
  5. Networking. Innovative executives aren’t one-person idea machines. Most get their inspiration from others. They look outside themselves and their organizations to get ideas. They realize that the best ideas for new products and processes will likely come from other companies, industries, or even countries. They look to others for ideas and inspiration. They talk to others who have specialized knowledge and skills. Innovators don’t operate in a bubble.

It seems the study’s authors have boiled it down pretty nicely for us. They even state in the article that questioning is the most important of the five skills. That, too, makes sense. Being curious and asking questions are critical skills. If you think you already have all the answers—that you know the best way to do things—then you won’t be searching for a breakthrough.

We all must realize that the “next big thing” doesn’t just happen. We hear all the time about how someone woke up in the middle of the night with the greatest idea in the world. That may be true, but that means they went to bed thinking about a problem. And if they went to bed thinking about a problem, they probably spent their day practicing one or more of the five skills listed above—because breakthroughs don’t happen if you’re not asking questions, paying attention to the world around you, testing ideas, and talking to others.

If you want to innovate, start by asking questions, and then begin practicing the other skills. And encourage everyone on your team to do the same. You’ll be amazed at what will happen!

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