I'm often asked how to teach the skills necessary for innovation. Based on my real world experience, I usually focus on the hands-on aspects, encouraging people to choose a small, manageable project and just get started. Usually this works best with a mentor, or experienced person guiding the project in some way. in many cases people decide that they are best suited to other types of work, since the ambiguous nature of the work isn't for everyone.
However, in writing the chapter Innovation and Neuroscience for the forthcoming book I mentioned previously, I've expanded my views on teaching skills for innovation. In writing the chapter, I learned from Professor Bill Duggan (in conversation and from his book Strategic Innovation) and Dr. Robert Burton's book On Being Certain, that the way the brain naturally processes information is very conducive to making the connections necessary for innovation. This made me step back and really think about how to teach innovation. If we are predisposed to this type of thinking, then why aren't more people successfully innovating more often? What makes it so hard?
The answer I found surprised me. From several sources, but most completely described in Professor Greg Berns' book Iconoclast, it became clear that although our brains are predisposed to the type of thinking necessary for innovation, our brains are equally predisposed to block this type of thinking. As Berns describes it, there are three main cognitive barriers to innovation:
Perception - if we cannot perceive a situation differently, then we will not be able to make new connections. Instead, we will cover the same ground over and over, based on current perceptions of the problem, situation, or general context. This perception could mean physically seeing information differently, or it could take the form of allowing yourself to truly see a situation through someone else's eyes.
Fear Response - people tend to fear uncertainty and public ridicule. Since innovation requires forging into new territory, high levels of uncertainty are guaranteed. In fact, the only way to drive out the uncertainty of new territory is to fully understand the uncertainty itself. It requires that uncertainty is embraced. Avoiding it will surely result in failure. And since new ideas will often be scary or threatening to others, the chance of facing some degree of public ridicule is higher than staying with the status quo.
Social Intelligence - it is necessary to socialize new ideas to help others to become more receptive them. People need time and repeated exposure to new ideas so that they can become familiar. Sometimes an initial association with a currently accepted idea can help as well. Intelligently socializing new ideas is a necessary skill, without which new ideas are often rejected.
It became painfully clear to me that the ability to build the skills necessary for innovation lies deeply within our own psyche. I have always known that a scripted process, or strict adherence to specific tools, will not produce truly innovative results. However, I have shifted my focus from a discussion about teaching skills necessary for innovation, to a discussion about how best to help people to prepare themselves for innovation.
This also illuminated why my focus on the hands-on approach works well. People need to get involved in a project in order to experience the perception shifts, and live through the initial fear of uncertainty that's necessary for a successful outcome. However, now I will also focus on highlighting fear responses exhibited by those who decide that this type of work is not for them. If they realize that they are caving into fear, will they be able to change their perceptions of their own ability?
I also made me realize the true value of some of the tools and techniques that are commonly used, either deliberately or intuitively. The true value of tools is that they can help to break down information to help to change a perception of a situation. Analogies can help to socialize an idea and make it more acceptable to others. But in the end, nothing will work if we cannot learn to push back on our response to fear. It's not that people who are good at innovating do not experience fear. They do. They just use it differently. I've personally been working in the innovation space for over 15 years, and I still experience that deer in the headlights feeling. For me it's an indication that I'm onto something truly new and different. This fear becomes fuel.
So what we're left with is that the best skill to teach is the ability to perceive fear as a guide forward, and not a caution to stop trying to understand new situations we encounter. I'm curious to hear how others have handled this in their work.
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