Creating Space to Innovate

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Creating Space to Innovate

Innovation is a quality that we strive for in businesses.  It may even be part of our mission or values.  After all, innovation drives companies forward and creates differentiation, which often results in growth.  If innovation is so important, how do we foster an environment that produces it?

Our views on innovation are often quite divided.  On one hand, we think of innovation as purposeful and scientific.  For instance, the new COVID-19 vaccines were brought about by great innovation that was the result of thousands and thousands of hours in a lab creating and testing.  The big drug companies invested millions and dedicated time from scientists and teams of people to bring it to market.  On the other hand, we sometimes think of innovation as a creative quality.  We often place people in a category.  That person is a creative type.  If left to their own, they will come up with some crazy ideas, but also may come up with that one idea that sticks.

Which is right?  In general, most ideologies that elevate a certain personality type as naturally successful at certain things are lacking.  For instance, we often hear that a certain type of person is a born salesperson.  There is a measure of truth that certain personalities might be quicker to learn sales. However, if we recognize sales for what it is — professionally helping people make the right buying decision, we come to the right conclusion that sales is much more of a learned skill than a natural born talent.

Innovation is similar.  Of course, certain types like Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, are more natural innovators. However, there are learnable ways we can foster innovation and creativity.  Many of us acknowledge this, but still treat innovation like some sort of ethereal quality that we are just hoping will come to us one day and produce something new.

The interesting thing about the innovation that we need daily in our lives and companies is that it does not necessarily mean inventing something on the scale of a new technology or new vaccine. Though cornering the market on an entirely new product would be amazing, simpler creative changes have a huge impact. The innovation we are looking for is often simply doing things in a new way, changing the ways we provide services, changing our product or service mix, or choosing some course that is innovative in our industry.

If innovation then can be learned and fostered, what can we do to innovate?  I recently saw a quote that made me pause and think.  It is from Keith Goudy, Ph.D. of Vantage Leadership Consulting.  He says, “If you want to make space for innovation, you simply have to make space—which may require sacrificing some low-priority work.”

If your day is like mine, it is packed to the gills.  Most often I cannot accomplish everything I have scheduled for myself. Anything unplanned must wedge its way between other tasks, pushing out the less urgent often at the expense of something important but not as urgent.  There is little time to think about anything other than the immediate thing that is pushing its way in.  In fact, there is so little time to think things over during the day, the thoughts of the day bleed into the evening, and my brain works to process everything at night.

When our days are so full, and our thoughts never catch up, we leave no time for creativity.  We must make space and time to think if we want to innovate.  John Maxwell talks about the importance of carving out time to think in his book “How Successful People Think”. He suggests carving out a place to think, removing distractions, scheduling a time to think that is your most productive time of the day, and keeping a list of things to think about.

Maxwell also says, “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”  How do we innovate?  By consistently and purposefully making time to think creatively.  In order to think creatively, we must give ourselves the space to think beyond the daily to-do-list and apply creative thinking to our real purpose and passion.

Another key to innovation is curiosity.  It seems most of us are born with this quality, some more than others, but the world tends to smash it out of us by the time we are adults.  Curiosity is often discouraged by parental annoyance with never-ending questions, or by the structured school day that often squelches the distraction of questions.  Even our peers sometimes grow tired of the curiosity of youth.  Some of this is just part of life’s lessons, but if it really empties one of curiosity, what a loss!

We have all heard the popular phrase, “stay curious”.  It is more than a quip imploring us to keep the wonder in our lives.  One of the Merriam-Webster definitions of curiosity is “interest leading to inquiry”.  The curious mind asks questions, even questioning things we suspect we know the answer to.  The curious mind probes and gathers more information.  It is when we stop being curious that we stop learning from others, stop piecing information together and stop innovating.  Trying to innovate without having the right information proves futile.

As Peter Drucker said, “The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers. It is to find the right question.” I’m convinced that if we spend more time asking than telling, more time questioning than assuming, and more time listening than talking, our pathway to innovation will be shortened dramatically.

If we want to innovate, we must act.  I am learning this lesson better as time goes by.  The best things in life take intentionality.  They are on-purpose.  With that in mind, let us purpose to carve out time to be creative.  Let us master our thoughts rather than being mastered by the weight of the day.  And let us foster innovation, as we carve out time for right thinking rather than reactive thinking.