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Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Art and Science of Innovation

by Jeffrey Phillips

The Art and Science of InnovationI'm a bit troubled by the fact that many people in corporate America seem to believe that innovation is a mystical art, rather than a set of skills and capabilities that many people can learn and implement. I suppose around every complex problem solving process there seems to be a bit of magic, but at the core of all magic there's a simple set of rules. It may take an Einstein to figure out the rules to relativity, but they are knowable, demonstrable and proveable. So, too, are the processes, capabilities and skills behind innovation.

Another barrier to broader innovation deployment is the sense that innovation is an art - an intrinsic skill that you are either "born with" or not. I, for one, am terrible at drawing. I simply didn't receive an innate ability to depict people or landscapes from my parents. I believe, though, if I tried to, I could become better at drawing using programs like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. This program has radically improved the drawing ability for thousands of people, and demonstrates that even art can be learned through the careful application of basic principles. I may never be a Van Gogh, but I can improve my drawing capabilities to a significant extent. Why, then, do so many people believe they aren't "creative" or aren't "innovative" as if this is a binary decision?

I'm not going to argue that "anyone" can master innovation skills, any more than I'd care to argue that "anyone" can master relativity or will become a Van Gogh. But it is also clearly the case that innovation is based on a number of tools and processes which can be learned, and is enabled through looking at a problem through a number of different perspectives, or imagining new perspectives, which is all that artists try to do. Furthermore, everyone is creative. Think back to your childhood when a cardboard box was a rocketship and a stick was a sword. We are all creative, we simply allow corporate cultures and society's expectations to force our creativity into hiding. One of the most instructive training activities we do at OVO is a prototyping exercise in which we ask our participants to prototype and defend to others an idea using nothing more than pipe cleaners, Play-Doh, paper, crayons and found objects. You'd be amazed at the creativity demonstrated when people know they'll be evaluated on their creativity!

So, the title of this post is really a set-up. Innovation is a science with rules, processes and established tools that requires the participant to think like an artist. The thinking requires new perspectives and the ability to imagine something new. Therefore, innovation combines the tools and methods of both scientists and artists, but all of those skills can be learned. If your organization wants or needs innovation to compete successfully, perhaps your team should start by examining the staff and its proclivities. Most organizations are full of people who are steeped in orderly process and science, and they need the perspectives and imagination an artist can introduce. Others have never been introduced to the tools and techniques that innovation has to offer, and need to learn those skills. Simply starting an innovation effort with no training is almost certainly doomed to failure.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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OpenID completeinnovator said...

Great post Jeffrey - and your warning to corporates is very accurate. You might also be interested to take part in today's #innochat (Thurs 18 March 2009 12pm EST) which is on this very subject!


Boris Pluskowski

8:50 AM  
Blogger mdalton said...

Completely agree Jeffrey - And not only can innovation be learned, but it can be improved like other processes too.

Best Regards,
Mike Dalton

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Kathy Klotz-Guest said...

Absolutely agreed. I think one of the issues is that even we (the creative/innovator community) sometimes use "creativity" and "innovation" interchangeably. I've done it and heard others do it as well. While they are two sides of the same coin, we do need to understand that creativity is open possibility thinking (yes, we can still use some process here too) and innovation is applied process and systems to that "open" creativity in order to bring creativity to viable fruition. Of course, it's more complex than this - but this is an important fundamental message to get across.

Kathy Klotz-Guest

8:27 AM  

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