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The Missing Keys in Your Quest for Innovation

Article by Jonathan Vehar posted in April 15, 2013

See the original posting here.

As the saying goes, “To make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs.”

But there’s a whole lot more to it than that, right? Without the right tools, skills and mindset, you won’t achieve your larger goal of creating delicious food.

The same goes for innovation. You can’t take a fixed recipe, run with it and assume you’ve got a plan for innovation. There are too many variables.

Let’s go back to our omelet. If you want to master the art of making omelets, you need some tools: a frying pan, a spatula, a whisk, plus the eggs and other ingredients. You also need to know how to break and beat an egg, perhaps chop vegetables, and employ the skills needed to follow a recipe. But to be fully proficient at making an omelet from the leftovers in your fridge, you need to grasp the finer points of seasoning, timing and creative thinking.

Innovative thinking is the same – you need a set of tools, a range of skills and a certain mindset. Otherwise you keep doing the same thing over and over again hoping for different results – one definition of insanity, and an approach that doesn’t yield innovation.

In my experience, most people interested in promoting innovation look first to tools and techniques. An effective toolset is a critical part of driving innovation in an organization. Reframing the challenge, phrasing problems as questions, and rapid prototyping are effective techniques. Other tools that are particularly helpful are structured brainstorming, mind mapping and making forced connections.

You can find hundreds of books about creative thinking and innovation tools, so if your current ones don’t seem to be working, go ahead and try some others. Just don’t get sucked into a never-ending quest for the “right” tool. Consider, too, your skillsets.

An innovation skillset is mastery of a framework that allows you to use your tools, knowledge and abilities to accomplish your goals. For example, individual contributors will need to know how to generate novel solutions and be able to participate on an innovation team. Mid-level managers must support and “protect” the innovation team from distractions and bridge groups to ensure constructive cooperation. The skillset for leaders at the top includes setting an innovation strategy and fostering a culture of innovation.

Finally, you need an innovation mindset. This is the fundamental operating system of the creative thinker. Mindset distinguishes those leaders who enable creative thinking and innovation from those who shut it down. A few of the important components of an innovation leadership mindset are curiosity, paying attention, deferring judgment, affirmative judgment and tolerance for ambiguity.

While it is possible to make some measure of progress with one of them, or even two of these sets, without all three, you’re missing out. Here’s what happens:

Skillset + Mindset. This is like having an understanding and appreciation of music and how to make it – but no instruments to play. You are stuck and have no mechanisms to get things moving.

I’ve worked with a number of advertising agencies that rely on the intuitive creative talent of their copywriters and designers to craft their breakthrough creative product.  But many of these people got stuck in “writer’s block,” and then what? By providing them with a set of deliberate tools, these “creatives” are able to shift gears and get themselves unstuck faster – without resorting to the Mad Men approach of drinking heavily.

Mindset + Toolset. Innovation is cobbled together, without clear direction. The approach is haphazard, without an agreed-upon framework to keep people on track.

While working with an R&D group for a large consumer products company, we found that the lack of a common skillset got in the way of collaborative discovery and integration of solutions and ideas. Providing a framework for applying their knowledge and tools helped them to work together much more effectively and efficiently by eliminating the debates and conflict that resulted from disagreements about the process. 

Toolset + Skillset. What’s missing here is the brain-operating system to implement and integrate innovation. You’ve probably been to workshops, read books, hired an outside consultant. You’ve tried many approaches, but none seem to work or they work on a small scale.

A large pharmaceutical company’s audit group had this exact problem. They understood the tools and had the skills to help the lab and manufacturing teams improve work processes. But many of the auditors had an adversarial mindset rather than the curiosity to figure out better solutions. A mindset shift helped to make relationships more productive and opened up opportunity for innovation.

So, what’s missing in your quest for innovation? What isn’t working? What needs your attention now – toolset, skillset or mindset – in order to cook up serious innovation?

Jonathan Vehar is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research, and a long-time creative thinking and innovation geek. He and CCL Senior Fellow David Horth recently co-authored the CCL white paper Becoming a Leader Who Fosters Innovation.


Creativity Unbound

A training manual with dozens of creative thinking tools and a step-by-step introduction to the creative problem solving process.

Read More »


Creativity Unbound

A training manual with dozens of creative thinking tools and a step-by-step introduction to the creative problem solving process.

Read More »