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Innovative Thinking: Skills, Definitions & Strategies

11 min read

Innovation

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What is Innovative Thinking?

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

Albert Einstein

An innovative thinker is a person who can find new solutions for problems. Of course, in the business realm, “problems” can be any number of things: customers’ Jobs to be Done, sourcing of materials for manufacturing, finding the right human resources platform, and so on. Innovative thinking allows us to find solutions to those problems that haven’t been found before.

What does innovative thinking look like? It depends, really. We often have this romantic idea of how a truly innovative thinker operates in the world. A little different than the rest of us, troubled by an insatiable curiosity, glasses askew and hair disheveled, colors everywhere a little brighter. In truth, innovative ideas come from innovative thinkers who use a set of skills and approaches that can be learned and developed. Such a dedicated practice is valuable in the work environment.

Here, we hope to describe what we believe innovative thinking looks like, and the skills innovative thinkers can develop to enhance their problem-solving abilities.

Innovative Thinking Skills

The bad news is that most of us are born with inherently good innovative thinking skills. The good news is that innovative thinking can be taught and practiced. Over time you can develop the ability to think creatively and with innovation in mind.

The difference between a person who is an innovative thinker and a person who’s not isn’t genetics; it’s training. With work, anyone can develop the skills necessary for innovative thinking.

Examples of Innovative Thinking Skills

Depending on who you ask, many skills can be considered innovative. We think some of the most useful, and most teachable, forms of innovative thinking skills are in the list below:

  • Creative problem solving: can you overcome adversity presented by a problem by finding new ideas that work as a solution? Can you understand a problem for what it really is?
  • Design: can you create extraordinarily complex designs that are universally accepted as perfect? Do you have the emotional skills necessary to understand how people from varied backgrounds will experience a design?
  • Critical thinking: can you move beyond black and white thinking to really interrogate a situation? Can you understand a problem not separately from the emotions associated with a solution, but inclusively of as many emotions and attitudes as possible?
  • Persuasion: are you emotionally intelligent enough to understand what people really want and need? Can you use that to convince people of new ideas?
  • Synthesis: can you unite two ideas to make a new one? Can you merge information from different sources to form a new conclusion?

Related: Idea Generation Techniques: How to inspire new ideas that Drive Innovation?

How to Develop your Innovative Thinking Skills

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov–who, among other things, developed the Three Rules of Robotics that influence many stories featuring robots–knew a thing or two about creative problem solving and innovative thinking. In a 1959 essay, Asimov wrote:

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)

Isaac Asimov

What Asimov is saying is that truly innovative thinking often looks strange, but if you’re the person bringing new ideas to the table, be confident. Also, be widely-read, and draw upon a deep knowledge base. Innovation grows from seeds spread in numerous fields. But if you want to be an innovative thinker, what can you do to develop those skills?

Developing Innovative Thinking Skills for Individuals

Innovative thinking takes practice and, like muscles, thrives with a good workout! So what should your plan look like if you want to buff up your critical thinking skills?

  • Practice dreaming: take fifteen minutes to imagine what life could be like once you’ve solved a certain problem
  • Wonder “what if”: take that problem three different directions, asking yourself What If? to start each exercise
  • Pen and paper on hand: since you never know when inspiration will hit, be ready to record your best ideas
  • Never self-censor: no idea is a bad idea; it might not be the best solution, but don’t dismiss ideas outright until you’ve given it proper consideration

Developing Innovative Thinking Skills for Organizations

Conventional approaches to decision-making have well-known drawbacks. For instance, buy-in suffers when decisions are made from the top without everyone being included. This may create resistance and decisions may not be implemented properly or at all. A majority decision often leaves the losers feeling like a frustrated “minority.” And the consensus approach is time-consuming and leads to ineffective compromises. All of these methods have in common that concerns, objections, or resistance are not sufficiently heard, understood, and taken seriously.

An organization’s ability to promote innovative thinking and problem-solving skills is reliant on its openness to workers finding unusual connections between their work and the work of others. It starts with hiring practices: how can an organization hope to inspire the innovation process without a diverse group of team-members? Looking for ways to combine disparate ideas pushes an organization toward innovative thinking, and companies that have in the past embraced diversity of background among their workforce often enjoy increased levels of creative thinking and innovative ideas.

Idea Generation
Idea Generation
Designed by: Digital Leadership AG

Related: Idea Generation Techniques: How to inspire new ideas that Drive Innovation?

These companies sustain success by continually finding the best ideas through dedicated practice devoted to innovative thinking.

In an innovation team that works in an agile, co-creative way, you need to acknowledge, test, and integrate various viewpoints and ideas, always with an eye to maintaining an open mind about the outcome. For this process to move forward, decisions need to be made constantly, requiring the team’s participation and buy-in. However, it is not practical for every person to be involved in every decision in a quickly changing environment. Thus, we recommend a hybrid model. Everyone should agree on how decisions should be made on a daily basis and this choice can of course be continually assessed and rethought. But after that, decisions are made in a more autonomous, self-organized way, based on the task at hand. Here are the basic options for who makes decisions.

  1. Individuals are empowered to decide alone and inform others about their decisions after the fact.
  2. Individuals decide themselves, after consultation with others.
  3. Decisions are made together, although certain people retain some veto privileges.
  4. Everyone must agree on the decision (consensus)

Now, let’s discuss some of the innovative decision-making approaches we recommend.

Emotions are indicators of unmet needs. Intuition senses our complex, ambiguous, and often paradoxical reality. Intuition lets us unconsciously see patterns in ways that our rational minds could never accomplish. Both emotions and intuition play a role in all mindset stages, but not necessarily in a conscious, active, officially recognized way. The more you make room for emotions and intuition, consciously and mindfully in your clearly structured decision-making processes, the more often surprising outcomes emerge.

Awareness of the complementary nature of emotions and intuition help managers find the right mindset for encouraging innovation and innovative thinking. Innovative thinkers tend to generate ideas best when supervisors build an atmosphere designed to foster innovation. This is a deliberate action by people in charge. As much as we’d like to believe in the spark of inspiration, the creative process needs a particular environment in which to flourish.

To build an environment that promotes innovative ideas, consider the following:

  • Encourage collaboration: have you built a space where people from different teams have an opportunity to meet? Does your company have a creative operating system that is willing to leave the status quo behind? Does innovative thinking appear in your usual practices? Are you ready to recognize an innovative thinker if you’ve got one one staff?
  • Find new ways to reward thinking, not people: creative thinking isn’t always profitable, but rather, the first steps of a journey toward new ideas. Have you redefined “failure” and “success” to reflect a dedication to innovative thinking?
  • Reward attempts: similarly, a creative mindset won’t blossom in an environment fixated on outmoded nations of success. Where possible, reward the measured attempts of innovative thinkers to try something new. Can you encourage more innovative thinking by not discouraging failure?

Remember, culture is a process that involves a feedback loop between the individual and the collective. Individuals shape culture and culture shapes individuals. The main ingredients for a successful innovation culture are a strong commitment to self-reflection, open communication in a safe environment, and a willingness to change.

Related: Innovation Culture: It’s in the Mindset – Full Guide

The UNITE Business Model Framework

How to Create Innovation includes a number of canvases that focus on value creation and finding the right business model to meet your customer segment and customer needs. The framework is built to inspire drastic changes that help you find a competitive advantage. Our hope is that your company grows through business model innovation, and so we again encourage you to look deeper into our website and the book.

Here is a summary of the key ingredients of the framework:

The UNITE Business Model Framework
The UNITE Business Model Framework
Designed By: Digital Leadership AG

Business Models

The centerpiece is the Business Model Canvas, which covers the six main areas of a Business Model (the Operating, Value, Service, Experience, Cost, and Revenue Models).

The eXtended Business Model Canvas adds the immediate business context, including Business Drivers, customers, and the team, as well as the Unfair Advantage.

Detailed Models

A Business Model can be broken out into its numerous aspects. Depending on what challenges you face, you can zoom in on your area of interest using an appropriate tool or canvas:

  • Your Business Intention and objectives as well as your Massive Transformative Purpose summarize your drivers and give direction to what you do.
  • The Value Proposition Canvas details the central components of your offering (the product or service).
  • To dig into your Customer Segments, work with data-driven Personas.
  • The JTBD Customer Job Statement and Job Map frame the JTBD of your customers.
  • The Business Model Environment puts your Business Model in a market context composed of emerging trends and disruptive forces.
  • The Innovation Culture Canvas helps you understand and consciously shape a culture that supports innovation.
  • The Innovation team structure enables you to draft a team structure for your innovation initiative.
  • Using learning and growth metrics, you can measure progress at the initial stages of development. These metrics help you focus on what really matters instead of creating a detailed business plan that will not really help you. Later on, you can expand the financial aspect of the Revenue and Cost Models with a full business case.
  • The Operating Model Canvas helps you think through the Operating Model.

Final Thoughts

Writing for Forbes, Bryan Collins stated

“Ultimately, innovation is about drawing connections between different ideas. You can do this as part of a group or alone.”

Bryan Collins

In other words, innovative thinking doesn’t privilege a particular field, but rather, anytime we challenge our usual modus operandi, we are engaging in innovative thinking. Whenever an organization can find opportunities to encourage their people to combine ideas into new ideas, they are supporting innovative thinking.

By leveraging the UNITE Innovation & Transformation Framework, organizations can create innovation in a target-oriented way, leverage their strengths, and overcome luck. Based on our experience over the past 10 years using the UNITE Framework, we have seen timelines shorten, budgets shrink, all while drastically improving investment security. Most of our clients’ innovations have not only survived but have increased the success of their overall business.


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