Five tools for innovation mastery

It’s a curse or a blessing but I’m unable to switch off the part of my mind that searches for new and better ways of doing things (spoiler alert: it’s a blessing!). As a young boy on the farm, through school and university and in all of the jobs I’ve ever done, the search has been a constant part of my life. It’s not like work, it’s like breathing. It’s the thing that I can’t stop doing!

Over the years, I’ve met many leaders and managers who were tasked with transforming a business unit or function. They were hungry for innovation but few of them understood how to systematically nurture it; in themselves or their teams. One thing is for certain, ordering our people to “bring me something more innovative!” rarely has a positive impact!

Over the years, I tried to collect the things I found that helped me to be more innovative. I’ve come to believe there are five systematic ways that we can all nurture our inner innovator and help those around us to become more innovative too.

I know that many people love a list so here we go:

  • Break all the rules
  • Impose ridiculous constraints
  • Smash yourself into new ideas
  • Analogise to jump domains
  • Synthesise colliding worlds

I’ll address these in turn:

Break all the rules

It can be hard to ignore the received wisdom and the known truths when exploring, but it can be hugely valuable. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve seen young or inexperienced teams achieving amazing results because no one had told them all the things that don’t work!

We can’t turn back time but every now and then it’s worth trying to imagine that the things we know to be true, just might be wrong. Once that’s done, it’s a much smaller step to try and envision a world free from those chains of orthodoxy.

Impose Ridiculous Constraints

In a Wired column in 1995, Nicholas Negroponte said that “incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy”.

I’ve seen teams struggling to find ways of reducing their budget by 5% but engage creatively in ways to slash it by 50%.

Try thinking of an essential process that takes 2 hours and challenge yourself to find a way it can be completed in 2 minutes.

There are so many examples where teams of people have triumphed in overwhelming adversity where the situation was so constrained it appeared that all hope should be lost.

But, when we’re faced with a problem that needs fresh thinking, it’s not so hard to create some utterly ridiculous and totally unfair constraints. They can help us to see the problem with fresh eyes!

Just for a moment, imagine that your budgets have been slashed and you’re on your feet presenting to the board in 10 minutes! What are you going to say?

Smash yourself into new ideas

Whilst our education system encourages many of us to know more and more about less and less, I’ve always believed there is huge value in a broad base of knowledge. A hunger to understand many things creates the building blocks for innovation.

History is littered with examples from Leonardo Da Vinci (“learning never exhausts the mind”) to Steve Jobs (“stay curious”) of people who achieved astonishing things through their hunger for new ideas and understanding.

There are many really interesting and fun ways to smash yourself into new ideas!

Read a book, learn some more about nature, take an evening class, try a new hobby, take a trip to the theatre, volunteer for something.

Whatever you try, make sure that you consciously engage with each new thing and enjoy it!

Analogise to jump domains

Or to put it slightly differently, learn to get better at finding ways in which things are like other things!

When we can find similarity between problems that are, on the face of it, completely different, then we can open the door to a completely new class of solution. Inspiration there can lead us to find new ways.

The following examples are probably a bit controversial and I choose them to be memorable:

  • Maybe company culture is bit like religion
    • Then perhaps it needs a set of underlying beliefs
    • And some stories to help everyone understand
    • Should it be fixed or flex with the times?
    • It could be reinforced by writing it down
    • It will be reinforced by people standing up and talking about it
    • Some people will advocate, some will follow, some won’t believe
  • Maybe business is a like war
    • Perhaps it’s a series of battles?
    • How will we train and equip our troops?
    • Perhaps we won’t win all the battles?
    • How will we treat our wounded?
    • Where is the high ground that will give us an advantage?
    • How should we treat our allies?
    • How will we know when we’ve won?

Calculating the shortest route for a delivery driver can be an extremely hard problem to solve. In fact, I wrote another blog dedicated to that problem where I used Darwinian techniques to solve it.

We can also look to the insect world for inspiration! When ants roam around looking for food, they lay down chemicals on the ground to help them find their way. By getting a computer to simulate an army of ants marching around a model of the drop off points and depositing some simulated chemicals as they go, after some time, the shortest routes have the highest concentration of chemicals and so our problem of route optimisation is solved!

The more we “smash ourselves into new ideas”, the more candidates we will find for analogising with our problems. And when we practise trying to find ways that seemingly unlike things are alike, then our capacity to unearth whole new classes of innovative solutions improves. Go on, try it today!

Synthesize colliding worlds

I learned on a course once the destructive impact of the word “but”. They urged us all to remove it from our vocabulary and just replace it with “and”. They argued that by using that “trick”, you can say the same thing and have the impact you want without getting peoples backs up.

It was a lot later that I learned something much more subtle (and powerful) about the “trick”. When we use “and”, our own brains are slightly deceived and start to contemplate that both sides can be true / satisfied. A creative process of Synthesis begins in the subconscious (thanks to Frank Buytendijk for helping me understand that better!).

So when we see a collision of ideology, take a step back and try to help people contemplate the notion that both views could be right. If they were, what would the world look like?

When we consider that a world could exist where stocks were lower and customer satisfaction was up, we start to contemplate ways of making that happen. Perhaps reduce the lines that we offer, perhaps write off the old stock that has little chance of satisfying a customer, perhaps decrease the lead times so that “out of stock” could mean “it’s being delivered before the weekend”?

This isn’t the ladybird guide to stock management(!), so, I’ll leave it there with a final urge that we all, consciously remove the “but” word from our vocabulary!!


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