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Can Innovation Skills Be Learned?

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The "DNA" of innovators might be considered a set of skills that are essential elements in design thinking. One cannot have empathy without having practiced the skills of listening and observing. And integrative thinking begins with the ability to ask good questions and to make associations. There is also a kinship between collaboration and networking. [At the root of innovation is] the importance of experimenting -- an activity that, at its root, requires a kind of optimism, a belief that through trial and error a deeper understanding and better approaches can be discovered.

Putting the research together, some of the most essential qualities of a successful innovator appear to be the following:

  • Curiosity, which is a habit of asking good questions and a desire to understand more deeply
  • Collaboration, which begins with listening to and learning from others who have perspectives and expertise that are very different from your own
  • Associative or integrative thinking
  • A bias toward action and experimentation
But as an educator and a parent, what I find most significant in this list is that it represents a set of skills and habits of mind that can be nurtured, taught and mentored! Many of us tend to assume that some people are born naturally creative or innovative -- and others are not. But all of the experts whom I've cited share the belief that most people can become more creative and innovative -- given the right environment and opportunities. Indeed, Judy Gilbert's job is to continue to develop the capacities of Google employees to become more innovative.

Tim Brown writes, "Contrary to popular opinion, you don't need weird shoes or a black turtleneck to be a design thinker. Nor are design thinkers necessarily created only by design schools, even though most professionals have had some kind of design training. My experience is that many people outside professional design have a natural aptitude for design thinking, which the right development and experiences can unlock."

Dyer, Gregersen and Christensen agree. In the conclusion of their article, the authors argue, "Innovative entrepreneurship is not a genetic predisposition, it is an active endeavor. Apple's slogan 'Think Different' is inspiring but incomplete. We found that innovators must consistently act different to think different. By understanding, reinforcing and modeling the innovator's DNA, companies can find ways to more successfully develop the creative spark in everyone."

So DNA, then, turns out not to be the right term, after all. It's not primarily what you are born with that makes you an innovator -- though clearly some people are born with extraordinary gifts. These authors seem to agree that what you have learned to do is more essential. Yes, there's nature -- but there is also nurture, what the environments around us encourage and teach.

But here's the problem: It is often difficult in our society to "act differently in order to think differently." To do so requires radically altering our adult behaviors. When Dyer and Gregersen were interviewed in a blog about their research, Hal Gregersen talked about the loss of creative capacity. "If you look at four-year-olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. But by the time they are 6½ years old, they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time they're grown up and are in corporate settings, they have already had the curiosity drummed out of them. 80% of executives spend less than 20% of their time on discovering new ideas. Unless, of course, they work for a company like Apple or Google."

Gregersen is hardly alone in his views. Sir Ken Robinson's recent book, The Element, and his TED Talks describe many of the ways curiosity and creativity are discouraged -- "educated out of us," he often says. Dr. Robert Sternberg, a psychologist who has studied creativity, agrees. He writes, "Creativity is a habit. The problem is that schools sometimes treat it as a bad habit . . . Like any habit, creativity can either be encouraged or discouraged."

For more information about the book, please visit Creating Innovators.

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AskteacherZ's picture
Middle School Vice-Principal; former 8th Grade U.S. History teacher & First Grade Teachers from Grosse Pointe, MI.

Students learn to be innovative if they are encouraged. The worst thing educators can do is to create, and yes EVERY educator creates, a learning environment that is rigid, uncomfortable and overly teacher centered. Educators can build innovation into the very fiber of their class structure by establishing an atmosphere that is conducive to interactive, project based and technology enriched learning strategies. This is not to advocate that there be no structure in class but rather to use the structure to further facilitate innovation, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking for students. This is what higher level learning is all about. Thanks for a tremendous, thought provoking post.

Alex Roberts's picture
Alex Roberts
Cyber Security

I was home-schooled up until grade 9. And I remember very clearly that settling into a "normal" school arrangement required a significant jump in creativity.

As you said - standard school settings value conformity over creativity every time. Suddenly my approach to solving problems - which I took great pride in as I grew older - became a handicap. For the first time (of many experiences to come thereafter) , I felt as though my talents were being clamped down into a set expectation - normalcy - and after having this drilled into me repeatedly, I lost all interest in schoolwork.

Were high school a great experience with plenty of opportunity to think outside the drab little boxen, I might have pursued further education. But instead, those final 4 years of my education were the worst experience I'd ever been dealt, and I swore that when it was over, I would have nothing further to do with the educational system.

I was fortunate enough to find my first job in one of the many internet companies that were becoming the rage back then - where the environment tolerated a certain level of creativity and curiosity, provided I also maintained a level of productivity. Suddenly I was getting paid MONEY to essentially spend half of my time playing autonomously. I was enamored.

But as time has gone on, I've found that the typical job - even in creative fields like programming - has been turned into a dull pointless drag. With every new project, a glimmer of hope sparks in me that this time it'll be fun and engaging... But then stubborn clients with no clue what they're doing force you to ruin perfectly good designs and systems with counter-intuitive junk that they neither need, nor will derive benefit from. Or my company will task me with developing something low quality and completely uninspiring because they're simply not being paid enough to invest real effort.

All of this really comes back to your point... We are innovative and creative from the start. But this definitely IS burnt out of us during the formative years. The result, is that your average person fits well into a cube, plugs easily into the bigger system, and lacks the soul-crushing feeling of letting their dreams slowly die because they already did that as children.

I figure that's what makes people like me dangerous. And sad.

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