The Innovacians

This post is a reprint of an article of mine that appears in the newly published book The Future of Innovation (United Kingdom, Gower, 2009) and on the web site of the same name. These are collections of essays by innovation practitioners throughout the world, edited by Drs. Bettina von Stamm and Anna Trifilova, with a foreword by Gary Hamel. The web site can be found at http://thefutureofinnovation.org where you can also find information on how to order this very diverse and thought provoking book.

Innovation today is widely seen as an organizational process. we’re developing ever more sophisticated tools and techniques to drive that process. Yet we’re still not as focused as we need to be on how people are actually behaving. We would not expect someone to suddenly become a musician, by simply being put into an orchestra. Yet many organizations act as though they expect to create  “innovacians” that way. (Or, assume they can’t be created at all, only found.)

As we go forward, we will increasingly view innovation as a set of behaviors, learned behaviors of not only successful new product developers, and innovation teams, but of entrepreneurs, designers, and even emergency responders. We’re all facing relentless change. So our ability to adapt, improvise and solve novel problems will increasingly define how effective we all are in all aspects of our lives. A musician is a musician, with or without an ensemble. Each of us needs to develop our innovacianship.

The behaviors of such a virtuoso are no secret. The short list includes creativity, a willingness to take risks, thoughtful experimentation, acceptance of ambiguity and uncertainty, and the pursuit of multiple perspectives and interpretations. It’s about skillfully and persistently challenging the status quo-including our own ideas and observations. And it’s learning how to effectively apply these behaviors in combination. No savvy innovation practitioner would attribute an organization’s innovation successes to a single factor. Innovation requires an interrelated series of tasks. And so it is with individuals. It requires a collection of cognitive lenses or mental models, a certain mindset reflected by our values, beliefs and actions.

Anyone who wants to create an orchestra needs musicians. The most successful organizations, communities and nations will be those who learn how to instill these behaviors. We’ve long recognized that leaders are not just those with formal titles. Anyone can and should see themselves as an informal leader. Everyone should also see themselves as informal innovators. With that realization, and the ability to monitor and measure those behaviors, we will recruit, train, promote and reward those who reflect the most innovation-friendly attitudes and beliefs. One of the most critical leadership skills will be the ability to recognize and develop innovacians.

we’re certainly not there yet, and it won’t be an easy transition. There’s considerable resistance to these behaviors inside a great many businesses and institutions. Still, it will happen because those who figure it out will have a huge competitive advantage. While those who resist too strongly won’t survive. We were all born with the ability to innovate. The challenge is to make that ability blossom, partly through skill-building and mostly by getting out of our own way and by creating a climate that welcomes skilled innovacians into the band.

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