How to Build Your Innovation Skills

In the 21st century economy, having strong innovation skills is critical. This year, instead of the proverbial New Year’s resolution to lose weight or get a new job, why not commit to building your innovation ability? This article discusses the urgency for building your innovation skills, and outlines some simple and effective ways for doing it.

What’s the urgency? Why now?  Here are a few reasons, there are plenty more for anyone who wants to investigate further.  The US economy is falling behind as the world’s number one economy—China is predicted to outpace the US by 2020.  The European Commission recently launched Europe Innova, an initiative to inspire, improve and activate innovation throughout Europe.  The state of Nebraska recently launched its Talent & Innovation (TI2) program.  In the spring of 2011 Mayor Bloomberg embarked on an ambitious agenda to make New York City one of the world’s top-ranked technology hubs.  Leading companies like IBM, GE, Intel, AT&T and many others have been in the news in 2011 regarding their initiatives aimed at building a culture of innovation.

Is Building Innovation Skills Really for You?

…each person, regardless of ability, style or orientation can and should be more innovative every day.

Given that innovation initiatives, especially ones similar to those described above, tend to be far reaching and require executive or top-down support, it’s common for individuals to dismiss their own actions and responsibility for being more innovative.  Or others tend to say I’m not creative, innovation is not something I should bother with.  Still others argue we have enough innovation, I don’t need to invest time and energy into it.  The reality is, as discussed in the acclaimed book, Innovation is Everybody’s Business (Tucker, 2010), each person, regardless of ability, style or orientation can and should be more innovative every day.  It’s really about continuous improvement and continuous learning.

Which Innovation Skills to Develop

Since there is such a cacophony of definitions surrounding innovation, it can be difficult to identify what skills to actually develop.  On the popular innovation Website, Innovationinpractice.com – just one of many—an innovation Wiki includes nearly 50 different definitions of innovation contributed by a broad spectrum of professionals.  And, there are probably hundreds more.  To simplify matters, I suggest breaking innovation skills into three main Skill Pathways – Thinking, Talking, and Doing.

To simplify matters, I suggest breaking innovation skills into three main Skill Pathways – Thinking, Talking, and Doing.

Thinking.  I am referring to building creativity and problem solving skills.  One of my favorite sites for creativity and problem solving techniques is Mycoted.com – click on Creativity Techniques.  Author and creativity consultant, Sarah Miller Caldicott, describes Edison’s Kaleidoscopic Thinking steps in her popular book Innovate Like Edison (Gelb, Caldicott, 2007).  Strategy guru, author and former Mckinsey consultant, Kaihan Krippendorff, applies 36 stratagems to help individuals and teams build critical strategic thinking skills.  For fresh brainstorming techniques I suggest the recent book Gamestorming (Gray, Brown, Macanufo, 2010).  If you prefer scientifically oriented approaches, the TRIZ method (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving) has gained wide acceptance.

Talking.  While thinking skills are essential for identifying problems, strategies, patterns, opportunities and new ideas, a big part of innovation is getting other people on board.  Therefore, communicating and collaborating are also vital skill sets.  More specifically, storytelling as a form of communicating is especially useful for advancing innovation.  And, as many will agree, Steve Jobs—just as one convenient example—was a master at storytelling as noted in The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs (Gallo, 2010)—see Principle 7: Master The Message.  At the same time, in my experience successful innovation requires a high degree of collaboration with other parts of an organization.  Much has been written about collaboration and team-building skills and there’s no shortage of training options available.

Doing.  At some point on the innovation road map – whether it’s a new product/service, a new business model, or a new process —something has to get built, brought to market, delivered to stakeholders, or executed.  The Product Management and Development Association (PDMA), Project Management Institute (PMI), and Pragmatic Marketing are terrific resources for pursuing relevant Doing skills in my opinion.  However, in my opinion Doing skills can often be fine tuned simply by practicing the art of getting things done.  A useful starting point is action planning.  One of my favorite resources for simple and clear action planning templates is the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement Website.

Advanced Approaches to Innovation Skills Development

Perhaps you want to go a little deeper than the Thinking, Talking, Doing framework.  In that case, you may wish to take advantage of an innovation skills assessment tool.  There is a broad spectrum of innovation skills assessment instruments around.  One I personally have completed and suggest is the Creatrix Inventory developed by Drs. Richard and Jacqueline Byrd.  Creatrix provides individuals, and teams if useful, with a measure of innovation skills and orientation based on creativity and risk taking.  The final report and guidance includes your innovation profile, which is one of eight different potential profiles.  I turned out to be a Practicalizer.

…leading business and technology universities now offer degree programs, certificate programs and executive training specifically on innovation.

Going one step further, you may also wish to explore professional or university classes.  On the professional side, a couple I suggest considering include the Innovation Master Class, which can be done online, or the IXL Center for Innovation.  On the university side, many leading business and technology universities now offer degree programs, certificate programs and executive training specifically on innovation.  These are typically found in the School of Business, the School of Technology, or the School of Engineering.  Many universities also have an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center that offers condensed workshops and seminars.

Getting Started

An important point here is all three Skill Pathways—Thinking, Talking, Doing—are vital to advancing innovation; however, in my experience few people have the aptitude to master all three.  Instead, I suggest focusing on one or two to either enhance existing strengths or to address areas of weakness.

Here are some pointers for getting started with your Innovation Skills Development Plan:

I suggest focusing on one or two to either enhance existing strengths or to address areas of weakness.

Step 1: Make the commitment (enough said).

Step 2: Choose your Skill Pathway; that is Thinking OR Talking OR Doing OR one of the advanced options discussed above.  Keep it simple and don’t try to take on too much at once.

Step 3: Have a goal in mind.  Imagine what success looks like at the end and write it down.

Step 4: Take action.  In other words, don’t get stuck in planning mode, you may never find your way out.

Step 5: Don’t quit!  It’s like running a marathon.  Having run several over the years, I can tell you the way to the finish line is not to think about the finish line.

So choose wisely, develop your plan, and take action.  And, have a happy and successful 2012!

By Harun Asad

About The Author


Harun Asad is currently employed with ConEdison Solutions, a leading energy services company based in New York. Previously, he was an Adjunct Professor at NYU-Poly, Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer for Lodestar, a b2b consulting firm, and held a number of other corporate positions in strategy, marketing, and innovation. He holds an MBA, a BS in Marketing and is completing an MS in Information Management.  He can be reached via Email at harunasad@gmail.com or on Linkedin and Twitter.

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