Innovation skills and our preference for using them

By Ed Bernacki, Founder of the Idea Factory, which helps people and organisations develop their capacity to innovate. Ed was a guest speaker at the 2017 Service Improvement and Innovation in Universities Conference hosted by the LH Martin Institute.

If you want to encourage children to play a sport, skills training would seem obvious. Running, passing, and ball handling are standard skills for netball, basketball or football. As game concepts are introduced, most children discover a preference for positions, perhaps playing forward or defence. Over time, they may develop specialized skills in their preferred position as well as a highly refined sense of team collaboration.

This is a remarkable good analogy for innovation. We know people are born creative, yet we can enhance our skills. We can also develop our preference or cognitive style to become experts in our style of thinking and our ‘team’ processes for collaboration

I have read many management writers while exploring creativity and innovation literature. I found some comments insightful for their simplicity and elegance in explaining a complex issue. I will use three to focus on the idea of skills and styles as a preview of my workshops at the Service Improvement and Innovation conference.

Can you teach creativity?

This is a long debated question. The debate itself is flawed as Edward de Bono, the champion of lateral thinking explained, “The English language does not distinguish between idea creativity and artistic creativity. Because of this failure of language, people are reluctant to accept that idea creativity is a learnable skill. Once we have separated idea creativity from artistic creativity, then we can set about learning, and develop the skills of learning for new ideas.”

De Bono opens the door to see the value of idea creativity; how we create, manage and use ideas. Most people know his model, Six Thinking Hats. I used it with a group of Grade 10 students. I asked them about the value of such tools. One girl said, “It helps you have an idea that is outside of your opinion”. How profound.

The concept of innovation skills has been refined over the years. In his 1953 book, Applied Imagination, Alex Osborn provided 300-pages of tips for applying our imagination in a more structured way to solve problems more effectively. He then introduced his guidelines for people to collaborate and ‘brain storm’ to ensure they solve problems.

While there is often much confusion between the concepts of skills, attributes and characteristics, a useful innovation skills framework was created by the Singapore government to launch a national innovation skills learning framework across the public sector. The core skills focused on how we solve problems (including related concepts of opportunity seeking, new initiatives). These being:

1. Generating ideas
2. Developing ideas
3. Judging and evaluating ideas
4. Communicating ideas
5. Turning ideas into actions.

This does not advocate a particular problem solving process like design thinking or a specific tool like Six Thinking Hats. It provides a learning model for each skill and helps people to know when to use these tools. While some think these tools seem basic, many scientific breakthroughs have been generated with ‘TRIZ’, a Russian acronym for the “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving.” From practice and observation, the weakest skill area is judging and evaluating ideas.

Do people think alike?
The answer to this question is rhetorical. Yet there seems far too little study of these differences and how we can harness them to improve the way we solve problems and generate solutions. While working on his PhD studies, Dr Michael Kirton noticed that executives he interviewed seemed unaware of how their style of thinking impacted (or biased) their decisions for solving major challenges. This led to an extensive study of cognitive differences and what eventually became a theory of adaption-innovation. He wrote of the importance of recognizing this difference. “Our problems have become so complex, and the penalty for not solving them so high, that we need to study the problem solver and the problems we need to solve.”

The vast majority of innovation study and practice focused on the problems we want to solve. We cannot ignore the problem solvers.

While it is easy to work with people who like you, this also limits your success. Teams and organizations need a diversity of thinking styles to solve the diversity of challenges they face.
For the Service Improvement and Innovation conference, participants can learn about their unique style of handling problems by using the Basadur Profile assessment. At the conference we will explore four preferences and how to work with others and how to maximize you own contribution (Most people have a combination of strengths with a preference in one area).

* Enjoys getting things done and becoming involved in new experiences.
* Excels in adapting to specific immediate circumstances to “make things work somehow.” 
* Gets things started by getting involved, gathering information, and questioning.
* Imagines many possibilities and senses all kinds of new problems and opportunities. 
* Turns abstract ideas into practical solutions and plans. Lacks patience with ambiguity.
* Likes situations where there is a single correct answer or optimal solution to a problem. 
* Forms quick connections, defines problems and conceptualizes new ideas, opportunities and benefits.
* Distils seemingly unrelated observations into an integrated explanation. 

True collaboration will happen when we see and use strengths of others. We must stop making them wrong for being different to us. This sounds easy and obvious, yet we seem unable in society to harness the cognitive diversity of people.

This leads to my final quote. It’s mine. I fashioned this after many observations of people and attempts to innovate. I wrote, “Talking about innovation and thinking this makes you innovative is as effective as talking about physical fitness and thinking this makes you fit.”

As with sport, we can learn new skills for innovation. We can learn new approaches to collaborate more productively. We can become experts in our preferred approach for solving problems and innovating. Yet, this does not make us innovative. We have to play the innovation game. We must show up at work, put our skills to work, and solve the challenges that we face every day.

Note: participants in the conference will receive an email link to use the Basadur Profile. A full report will be generated for personal learning and discussion during the conference.