The perception that innovation means big ideas occurring on a macro level is only partly true. Smaller, incremental changes are the other half of the story and can even lead to a new innovation altogether.
“I think it’s a really big problem that innovation is perceived as the next big thing. It inhibits the way that people can contribute to innovation,” said Dr. Amantha Imber, who holds a doctorate in organisational psychology and is the founder and CEO of innovation training consultancy Inventium.
Through her work with Inventium, Imber has helped some of the world’s biggest brands–including Google, Coca-Cola, Disney, and LEGO–steer their employees on the path to more innovative organisational cultures.
Imber said she prefers to think of innovation simply as “change that adds value,” a philosophy that underpins not only her work with these organisations, but the direction of her keynote addresses at conferences across the world.
Here she shares her top five tips for thinking innovatively with CMO.com.
1. Think Inside The Box
While “think outside the box” is often the go-to advice for innovation, it may not be the most helpful suggestion. Challenging the status quo and breaking through constraints might work from time to time, but, according to Imber, embracing limitations is actually the perfect incubator for innovative thinking.
“Creativity loves constraints,” she said. “The hardest condition in which to think creatively is when you have a blank sheet of paper with no rules.”
2. Hit The Sweet Spot
Just as a professional tennis player aims to hit the ball with the centre of the racquet, creatives should be constantly looking to hit the innovation “sweet spot.”
“You need to give yourself and your staff the appropriate level of challenge,” Imber said. “You want problems that are difficult, but not to the point that you become overwhelmed or stressed.”
The level of challenge should match the skills and resources to solve the problem effectively, she added. And boredom is the enemy of creativity. If teams don’t feel challenged by a task, they’re not going to be able to think innovatively about it. Likewise, when they are overwhelmed, creativity suffers.
Goal-setting is a key component in ensuring the right level of challenge.
“If you set goals that are comfortable, you won’t get innovative behavior,” Imber said. “Set goals that you feel slightly uncomfortable reaching that will push you out of your comfort zone and into a creative thinking space. … When people feel challenged, that’s how you know you’re doing it right.”
3. Don’t Underestimate Autonomous Thought
While a team brainstorming session is a common first step when looking to solve a problem, Imber discourages the practice—especially for more introverted team members—because, she said, it encourages group think and has been shown to be ineffective.
Rather, an effective structure for problem-solving is to have team members work solo at first, coming together to collaborate once everyone has had the chance to form individuals views and ideas, she said.
“Autonomy is really important,” Imber said. “People need to be given the freedom to solve problems the way they want to because micromanagement kills creativity.”
4. Open Your Mind, Expand Your Experience
Great innovation requires a combination of empathy, creativity, and openness to experience.
“You cannot be closed-minded,” Imber said. “Someone that demonstrates openness is someone who enjoys trying new things and experimenting with new ideas.” She also said that effective innovators are almost always people who have read widely and have a broad range of interests.
“Effective innovators are T-shaped as opposed to I-shaped,” Imber added. Psychologically speaking, I-shaped individuals are incredibly gifted in their field of expertise, but less so when it comes to diversifying or working outside of it.
T-shaped workers, on the other hand, have depth of experience but also breadth–gifted in one field but also pursue other interests. Breadth is also important when recruiters consider candidates, Imber said.
“A CMO or a marketing director will want candidates that have had a certain number of years in their career as a marketer, but what is actually more effective is to find someone that has worked in other fields or completely different industries,” she said.
5. Use Your Unconscious Mind
While it’s important to clearly identify the problem at hand, Imber also suggested that innovators should actually stop thinking about it. At least for a while.
“Our unconscious mind is a very good problem solver and excellent creative thinker,” she said. “Go for a run, sleep on it, or turn your attention to other projects. Make sure you leave time for ideas to emerge.”
At Inventium, Imber practices what she preaches. “We have a regular strategy days, and I set myself a week to contemplate some of the problems and opportunities that I want to think creatively about,” she said.
The unconscious mind often produces results at the least-expected times, so her final piece of advice is to be prepared to take notes–with notepad and pen, smartphone, or other device–at all times.