Resolve to Practice the Discovery Skills of Innovators

If you have resolved that 2010 will be your breakthrough year, turn now to a great little article on The Innovator’s DNA in the December Harvard Business Review and see how you stack up against the five discovery skills of innovation. Chances are good you already have several of these skills in your set and just need to practice to be more innovative.

Authors Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen identified these skills by studying the habits of 25 innovative entrepreneurs and then surveyed more than 3,000 executives who had started innovative companies or invented new products. I think they nailed it. The skills are:

  1. Associating or the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields. If you work as a futurist and consultant as I do with lots of different organizations, or in any interdisciplinary work, you get lots of opportunities to practice associating. You may borrow the idea or insight, but your innovation comes in applying it to a new opportunity.
  2. Questioning is described as the most important skill to turbo-charge the other discovery skills. The authors advise, “ask questions that both impose and eliminate constraints; this will help you see a problem or opportunity from a different angle.” These “why” and “why not” questions help you challenge your assumptions and see new possibilities.
  3. Observing how people act and interact with their world can tip you off to new ways of doing things.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve observed a process or product and said, “who designed this?” If I were more innovative, I wouldn’t just mutter and move on. I would be the one to build the better product or process the world needs.
  4. Experimenting is the skill of trying out our ideas by creating prototypes and launching pilots. I love trying out new ideas and processes a little more than I would ever dare admit to my clients since failure is the downside risk. But as the HBR article notes, it’s in these interactive experiences when we “provoke unorthodox responses” that we “see what insights emerge.”
  5. Networking may be most people’s weak skill. I know it is mine. Innovators devote time and energy to finding and testing ideas through a network of diverse individuals. They intentionally “go out of their way to meet people with different kinds of ideas and perspectives to extend their own knowledge domains.” This kind of networking takes us well outside our comfort zones and into disruptive learning. If after attending an internal meeting or external conference, you rarely say “I never thought of it that way”, you are well overdue for some serious networking with people of different experiences and persuasions.

So which of the five skills do you resolve to boost in 2010 to be more innovative? I’ve got observing and networking at the top of my list. If all leaders resolve to practice and improve one or more of these skills, we just might have a chance of innovating our way out of these tough times.