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On Becoming an Innovator Published: Sunday, June 15, 2014 12:01 am By: Ulises Pabón, President

Innovation is hot!  Most companies claim it as a core value.  It has sneaked its way into mission and vision statements.  Ask a Human Resources leader for a list of their company’s managerial competencies – the knowledge, skills, and abilities they consider key for effective managerial performance – and I assure you innovation will appear on the list.

Yet, amidst all this noise, may organizations have little to show in terms of how they are moving from intent to realization.  Adding innovation to the list of competencies required for a job does little in terms of helping people understand what innovation means and how they can become more innovative.

Since innovation is the process of converting ideas into something new of value, let’s examine six skills that have proven to be instrumental in achieving this outcome.  While they are not a recipe for instant success, practicing them will, for sure, move you in the right direction.  If you are serious about becoming an innovator, make it a point to exercise one of these skills every day and watch your innovation muscle grow.

Let’s start with observation; a foundational skill in the innovators arsenal.  Observation provides you with the raw material your mind needs to connect and associate freely.  Good innovators observe with multiple lenses – tunnel vision, wide angle, zoom, fisheye.  Today’s pace detracts from our observation skills.  We see what we expect to see.  We do not have time to notice the nuances and subtleties of everyday life.  Hence, opportunities fly in front of us and pass unnoticed.

Next time you’re taking a walk or visiting a mall, do the following exercise.  Pick a random profession; a profession unrelated to what you do for a living.  Now spend the next 15 minutes observing the world around you from the perspective of that profession.  What would a banker see?  What would a CIA agent see?  What would the owner of a funeral parlor see?  As you see with those new eyes, notice the things that now stand out.  What colors become significant?  What kind of people jump to your foreground?  What activities do you now notice? 

Questioning is another important skill.  Questions that start with “what”, “when”, and “where” are rather bland.  They are typically answered with a fact.  The questions you really want to play with are those that start with “why” or “how”.  When you’re practicing this skill, don’t stop for answers.  The more questions you entertain, the better.  Of special interest are questions that start with “what if”.  What if you were forced to give away your product for free?  What if demand for your service quadrupled?  What if someone discovered a way to cut in half the wait time of your process?  What if your business were to open only during weekends?

Another important skill to practice is connecting.  Creativity is, after all, the connection of previously unrelated concepts, ideas or experiences.  By connecting, associating, and integrating concepts and experiences, innovators are able to generate new ideas.  The exact date escapes us but historians estimate that the wheel was invented circa 4000 B.C.  Why did we have to wait until 1972 for someone (Bernard David Sadow) to connect wheels to luggage!?  Experiment with odd connections.  Play with random connections.  Most creativity tools are designed to provoke connections.  If you want to improve your connecting skills, consider reading about creativity and experimenting with the tools.

This brings me to the fourth key skill for innovators: reading.  I hate to sound like your elementary school teacher but reading and studying about any topic is a great investment for innovators.  Prolific reading inevitably seeds your brain with ideas, perspectives, and knowledge.  The more varied the better.  Fiction, non-fiction, biographies, articles, and blogs, all contribute to nurturing an alert and curious mindset.

If connecting concepts are the fuel for new ideas; networking helps you turn them into a reality.  Great innovators are skilled at networking.  They know that their ideas will be as good as the people they can put behind them.  The days of the lone inventor are over.  Turning an idea into a success is not a one-man or one-woman job.  If you want to build on your networking skill, two books you will want to read are: Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back, both by Kieth Ferrazzi.

Finally, great innovators love to experiment.  Rather than subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” club, true innovators have a natural tendency to change the way things are done and try things out.  Through experimentation, they play with ideas, test hypothesis, investigate options, and generate new knowledge.  Make a point of changing something in your job this coming week.  Try something out.  Build a prototype of your idea.  If nothing else, drive to work through a different route.  Get into the habit of experimenting with things.

Innovation is the process of turning ideas, through knowledge and action, into something new of value.  Practice these skills and you will inevitably awaken the innovator inside you.

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