A road map for harnessing creativity

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If you don’t feel particularly innovative, or your organization seems flat-footed and uncreative, blame it on your teachers over the years. That’s the message from Canadian consultants David Weiss and Claude Legrand, who have been tracking innovation in companies and finding it wanting.

Your teachers prepared you for a world where analytical intelligence would be dominant. You were taught literacy and numeracy skills, and to apply logic or your memory of past solutions to new problems at work.

But these consultants believe you need two other forms of intelligence.

The first, emotional intelligence, has drawn a lot of attention in recent years, highlighting the importance of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management to business success.

The other intelligence, also the title of their book, Innovative Intelligence, is a new construct, despite the endless chatter these days and profusion of books and articles on innovation. It’s the capability to gain insights into complex problems or opportunities, and discover new and unforeseen solutions that can be implemented.

Innovative intelligence may involve creativity, but it’s not the same as creativity. Creativity, the authors note, is about having new ideas, relevant or not, useful or not, implementable or not. Innovation is applied creativity that achieves value for a business. Innovative thinking – the form of thinking we didn’t learn at school – is the process of solving problems by discovering, combining, and arranging insights, ideas, and methods in new ways.

It doesn’t come about from free-form thinking. Instead, the writers believe you need to follow a four-stage process:

Framework: You need to clarify, ideally in a project or team charter, the exact problem or opportunity you will explore. This will include the objective, the problem’s boundaries (where you won’t go, which can be as important as what avenues you do explore), and how success will be measured.

This step is often skipped, or assumed, and often leads to failure in our innovation efforts. “A clearly defined framework greatly increases the probability of a successful outcome. No framework or an unclear framework almost guarantees failure or suboptimal results,” the authors warn.

Issue redefinition: You need to strip the problem or series of problems down to root causes, to make the complexity you are dealing with manageable. This will usually involve identifying subproblems, and exposing the best angles from which to solve the overall problem.

Start this stage by clarifying the underlying assumptions, to see how accurate they are. You also must understand how the issue fits into the larger constellation of organizational issues, as well as how it breaks down into parts. In this exploration, you need to sift out the root causes, since that’s what you will focus on in the next stage: idea generation.

Idea generation: This is the stage we are most familiar with in innovation – brainstorming. And the authors argue we usually get it wrong: “To be effective, idea generation is a step that demands planning and rigour. This is contrary to the unstructured ‘lob some ideas into the air’ approach leaders and teams often take.”

You must prepare in advance, because creative and productive innovative thinking does not happen automatically when participants walk into a meeting room. In fact, the authors contend the outcome of an idea-generation session is mostly sealed by the time the participants gather. You must have the right problem, participants, facilitator, agenda, and techniques. And when people arrive they must be introduced to a clear question they are to struggle with, and understand the boundaries within which they can generate workable ideas and the ground rules for the meeting. There’s nothing worse than generating brilliant ideas that can’t be implemented because, for example, they are beyond the resources or scope of the organization.

Implementation planning: Once you have your big idea – or a few of them, since you should tender alternatives to the ultimate decision maker – you must assess the risks associated with them and how you can effectively implement. You need a well thought-out implementation plan that will take the idea from concept to successful implementation.

You are probably familiar with the competing stages of divergence and convergence that are the hallmark of idea generation. We need to get a lot of ideas out on the table, uncritically, in what is known as divergence, and then converge on the best ideas to study. The authors argue, however, that divergence and convergence must occur throughout each stage of the innovative thinking process for it to be fruitful.

So, for example, when developing the framework, you must consider all the possible objectives, types of thinking and boundaries (divergence) before determining which objectives, type of thinking, and boundaries you want to focus on (convergence).

Innovative Intelligence is a level-headed, well-structured book that can help you better understand innovative thinking and improve your organizational processes. It includes lots of good ideas for what we consider the critical stage – idea generation – which are supplemented by solid advice on the other stages, and how to develop organizational practices for innovation.

Harvey Schachter – Wednesday’s Globe and Mail


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