Making innovation practical

Dr. Amantha Imber, author of The Innovation Formula, presents a ‘no-fluff guide’ to getting you and your team thinking outside the box

Making innovation practical
Innovation is a term that is surrounded by fluff. Many people will offer opinions on how to innovate more effectively, but few actually base this advice on any sound evidence. As is often the case, the voice of popular culture and fad-ridden management books wins out over the voice of scientific research.

However, the scientific research into how to drive innovation is both plentiful and precise. Let’s explore some of the methods that have been scientifically proven to improve your innovation efforts.

Why brainstorming doesn’t work – and what to do about it
There are several big problems that go hand in hand with brainstorming. A lot of us don’t generate our best ideas most effectively in a group, but rather when we have time to think about it on our own for a bit. Likewise, brainstorming suits highly extroverted people who are comfortable putting their thoughts on the table, but less extroverted people do not work so effectively in these types of situations. In addition, groupthink, in which group members start to think and behave in similar ways, can significantly reduce the effectiveness of a brainstorming session.

To overcome the huge shortcomings of brainstorming, try adopting a technique called ‘shifting.’ Shifting involves getting people to generate ideas on their own for five minutes or so – and then, after they have had enough individual idea generation time, getting the group to re-merge, giving everyone a turn to share their ideas. Finally, the group works together to flesh out the ideas that have the most potential.

At Harvard University, researchers found that groups using shifting generated significantly more and significantly broader ideas compared to traditional brainstormers. So if you do decide to use this technique, you can expect a whole lot more ideas – and more diverse ones at that.

The happiness hangover
Our emotional state has a big impact on our ability to be innovative. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University conducted a study that examined the impact of happy and sad moods on idea generation. To put them into the required mood, participants were first asked to describe a recent life event that made them feel happy or sad. Following the mood manipulation, participants were asked to write down as many things they could think of that could fly. On average, participants in the ‘happy’ group came up with almost 50% more ideas than the ‘sad’ group.

The happiness hypothesis was also explored by Teresa Amabile at Harvard University. Amabile asked several hundred people to keep a work diary that detailed their daily activities, moods and other workplace events. An analysis of these diary entries showed that people were more likely to come up with breakthrough ideas when they were feeling happy, even if this happiness was experienced the day before the idea was generated.

When we are happy, the level of a brain chemical called dopamine increases. In the frontal lobe, dopamine controls the flow of information to other parts of the brain. When people feel happy, information flows more freely, thus opening up connections between concepts that are only remotely associated with one another.

By contrast, when people feel sad, they become more detail-oriented in their thinking, which means they often will not see the greater possibilities. In other words, they get focused on the trees to the exclusion of the forest.

Recognize, but don’t reward
Think back over the past few years and consider how your performance at work has been rewarded, or how you have rewarded others in your organization. Has cash or recognition featured more strongly? Many universities and researchers around the world have studied pay-for-performance reward systems. In one such study, researchers found that individuals who were rewarded in this manner tended to avoid risky behaviour.

People got so caught up in achieving their targets that they focused on repeating what they had done in the past and tried not to do anything that might mess up their rewards.

When people try to avoid risk, creativity is one of the first things to fly out the window. Creativity and innovation, of course, require a degree of risk and often a large number of failures before a breakthrough happens.

On the other hand, recognizing employees for their achievements and contributions will go a lot further than monetary rewards in keeping staff satisfied and increasing their ability and motivation to think creatively at work.

You can recognize staff in a number of different ways. Many organizations hold annual awards ceremonies in which people who have contributed great ideas to the company are crowned ‘innovators of the year.’ Others award an ‘idea of the month,’ and the winner receives a voucher for his or her efforts and is publicized through the internal company newsletter or intranet. And of course, informal recognition is important too.

Find the right amount of challenge
One of the strongest predictors of innovation in the workplace is whether employees feel adequately challenged by their jobs. Those who feel their jobs are challenging and that their objectives and goals stretch their capabilities are more likely to behave more creatively.

This effect is enhanced when employees are allowed to work autonomously, rather than being given step-by-step, day-by-day instructions on how to reach these goals. Creative behaviour occurs when employees have the freedom to work out for themselves how to reach their challenging targets.

However, it is important that employees do not feel too stretched, as this can lead to frustration. Likewise, not feeling stretched enough can lead to boredom.

At many organizations, matching projects to employees is not something that tends to take priority. Instead, it is simply a matter of working out who is up to their eyeballs in work and who has time to take on extra work. However, this traditional approach to task allocation hinders innovation.

The assignment of tasks needs to be based instead on skill level and whether the employee would feel challenged by the task. A project should be assigned to an employee who can understand the task and not be completely daunted by it. Likewise, the task should challenge them and not be too simple for them to complete.

Crush some assumptions
Assumptions are one of the biggest innovation killers in organizations of all sizes – those nasty things that sit around in the back of your head and stop your thinking from going anywhere interesting. Chances are, if you have a problem you are trying to crack, you hold a whole lot of assumptions or preconceived notions that are boxing in your thinking. Take some time to identify the assumptions that are governing your thinking around problems you are trying to solve. Once you have identified those assumptions, deliberately crush them by asking: What if the opposite were true? By asking this question, you will unlock significantly more creative solutions.

Dr. Amantha Imber is the founder of Inventium, a leading innovation consultancy. Her latest book, The Innovation Formula, tackles the topic of how organizations can create a culture in which innovation thrives.