It’s no secret that "innovation" has become a buzzword in education. Organizations are looking for new ideas to pursue, or inventive tweaks to existing products and services. Where do these innovative strokes of genius come from?
Much has been written about this topic, but I’ll draw on The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the 5 Skills of Disruptive Innovators, by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen. To summarize, the authors identify five skills that separate ‘innovators’ from "typical executives:"
The first is a cognitive skill:
Associational thinking: Innovators, the authors explain, “…discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas. Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields.”
The remaining four are behavioral skills, which all help support associational thinking:
Questioning. Innovators try to understand a current phenomenon, why it exists in its current form, and how it could be different. The more questions, the better. And adding constraints can be especially valuable. The authors write, “This is precisely what Apple did to come up with the iPod (‘What if we created an MP3 player that could fit in a shirt pocket but hold five hundred to a thousand songs?’) and highly successful experience-centered retail stores (‘What if we used a regular-sized retail store to sell a very small number of Apple-only products?’)”
Observing. Innovators generate ideas from paying attention to the details in their surroundings. The authors cite this example, “IDEO’s Kelley reports that when designing a new kids’ toothbrush for Oral-B, IDEO went out in the field to watch kids brush their teeth. What it noticed was that kids’ toothbrushes were just smaller versions of adult toothbrushes, which proved to be a challenge for them to hold and maneuver because they lacked the dexterity of their parents. This led to an innovative design: big, fat, squishy toothbrushes that were much easier for kids to hold and use. The result? Oral-B had the best-selling kids’ toothbrushes in the world for the next eighteen months.”
Networking. Innovators look for people with views profoundly different than their own, and they find and test ideas through these networks.
- Experimenting. Innovators try new things. They actively seek exposure to new ideas, places, knowledge and perspectives – even if there is no obvious practical application. And some innovations start with accidental experiments. For example, the authors share, “…IKEA never intended to have knockdown kit furniture (disassembled furniture in flat parcel boxes) as a central feature of its low-cost furniture retailing model. A serendipitous experiment early on in the company’s history yielded an important insight. After completing a photo shoot for a furniture catalog, a marketing manager found not all the furniture fit back into the trucks. When a photographer suggested that they take the legs off the table and slide the table into the truck, the lights went on: IKEA could knock down almost all its furniture to reduce shipping costs and make the customer the final assembler. This small experiment was critical to IKEA’s business model as a global furniture retailer.”
Innovators also like to purposefully generate and document their ideas. These concept repositories can serve as the catalyst for a ‘big idea.’ By taking unrelated thoughts and mashing them together, often the most innovative ideas can emerge.
Do you have any tips for how to generate innovative ideas?