insights & research

Innovation skills, attitudes and behaviors can be taught

By Dr. Min Basadur

No one is surprised that we need training to learn business principles, but the idea that we have to learn creative problem solving somehow seems to startle people. Innovation, or creativity is widely viewed as almost an innate or instinctive trait. The truth, however, is that creative thinking is actually a readily- taught set of skills, attitudes and behaviors. Without training and conscious practice, those skills, attitudes and behaviors are typically underdeveloped in most people. This is particularly true in professions which emphasize the importance of following rules, rather than thinking outside of the box. But in an increasingly complex business world, there is much demand for professionals who can see innovative ways of tackling challenges, and can recognize that there may not only be one right answer to a problem.

Many of the problems we encounter are structured or predictable, with a learned procedure to guide handling. Solutions are typically sought by consulting rules, procedures or past experience, and relying on analytical skills. Sometimes however, we encounter problems we haven’t faced before, and have no pre-set rules and procedures for managing. Often unpredictable, these types of problems may be caused by changing circumstances. They require skills in problem and opportunity sensing, fact gathering, problem defining, creating and evaluating diverse options, and implementing new things that have never been tried before. They require the use of imagination, non-linear thinking and some risk- taking.

As successful professionals, it’s vital that we have skills to manage both of these kinds of problems. However, our traditional formal education primarily addresses structured problems by teaching us formulas, rules and procedures. In the more stable world of the past, this was tolerable. However, today’s problem solvers need to be able to creatively discover good questions and challenges, work through ill-structured situations and see the opportunity buried in a crisis.

Without creativity training, many people are prematurely critical of new ideas and creative solutions. Rather than build upon promising but imperfect ideas, they too quickly reject possibilities for innovative action. Attempting to equate new and old experiences, people search for what is similar rather than what is unique in a new problem, and use available solutions rather than consider new or innovative ones.

Creative problem solving training also makes people better at finding problems. That may sound odd until you consider that innovation requires new solutions – and new solutions require anticipating problems, changes, trends and opportunities. When faced with a problem, many people tend to skip over the essential step of clearly defining it, in favor of focusing on attempting to solve it. Without real investigation, the tendency is to act without careful thinking, which can result in confusing symptoms with problems, and causes with effects.

As key as it is to individual creative thinking, training is even more important for developing the skills to working creatively within a group. The “group think” phenomenon tends to lead teams to conform to accepted patterns, rather than risk making bold decisions. Poor communication within groups is heightened by our tendency to equate inquisitiveness with rudeness.

The skills, attitudes and behaviors of the creative problem solving process must be learned through in- depth, hands-on practice and experience. Confidence and willingness to tackle complex problems is increased with the chance to practice within a safe learning environment, guided by expert coaching.

Understanding the different steps involved in creative problem solving, as well as our own particular preferences for various stages of that process, builds awareness of our strengths and weaknesses and increases our effectiveness in working with others.

In today’s business environment, creativity and innovation are not frills or luxuries, but essential skills for success. They are skills that clients and employers increasingly recognize and demand, and are as important to learn as standard business practices.

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