Innovation in the Workplace, Part 1: Getting to Know You

There’s an author in Chicago I work with who often says how innovation is much like the weather: It is often talked about but rarely understood. Innovation has too long been thought about as some kind of mysterious process that only highly creative people experience on rare occasions. But what if innovation is like any other skill, such as riding a bike. If it is, then it can be learned and mastered just like any other discipline. If it’s like riding a bike, then once it’s learned, you won’t have to worry about ever forgetting it.

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Think of innovation as a response to change. If you can recognize change and then find a way to respond to it that solves a problem or challenge, you’ve engaged in innovation. Children are especially good at this because they don’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what will work and what won’t when they are facing a changing environment. They’re also good at it because they ask lots of questions rather than trying to give answers. What happens as we grow older is that formal education tends to take the wind out of our ability to innovate. Instead of fostering curiosity and inquiry, much of our formal education focuses providing the right answers to the questions asked by teachers. As a result, we become adults who lack the skills needed to be innovative.

In a sense, there’s nothing more natural than innovation if you think of it as adapting to change. It’s the only way we’ve managed to survive as a species for this long. What do people need in order to be innovative? They need curiosity, the ability to ask great questions, space for experimenting (using the scientific method), a safe environment in which to fail, time to reflect, opportunities to exercise their imaginations, and room for collaborative relationships. Perhaps above all, innovation has to be seen as fun and a form of playfulness. Some of the best innovations came about from people just “playing” with ideas about which they were passionate.

One of the most important things everyone needs to know about themselves in their attempts to be innovative is how they learn. Most people will fall primarily into one of the following seven learner types:

  1. Spatial/Visual– Learning primarily through spatial understanding, such as pictures and images.
  2. Auditory/Aural– Learning primarily through music and sound.
  3. Linguistic/Verbal– Learning primarily through reading, writing or listening to words.
  4. Kinesthetic/Physical–Learning primarily through a sense of touch.
  5. Mathematical/Logical–Learning primarily through reasoning and logic.
  6. Interpersonal/Social–Learning primarily through interactions in groups.
  7. Intrapersonal/Solitary–Learning primarily through self-study.

And of course there are plenty of people who learn through more than one style. One of the best things you can do to foster innovation in the workplace is to have employees take a learning style assessment so that each one understands their primary form of learning. This can also be useful information when forming project and other teams – your teams will be more productive with a diversity in learning styles among its members, that is as long as everyone understands the differences and respects them!

How have other organizations and companies attempted to foster innovation among their employees? Here are just a few examples to get you thinking from one of the most innovative companies on the planet – Google:

Google Cafés: Eating at Google has been made easy (and delicious) and designed in a way to purposefully bring together people from different teams to spark ideas and conversations.

Direct Email: Any Google employee can directly email any company leader to get a conversation going and discuss an idea.

20% Projects: Google engineers are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on projects that personally interest them.

Google Moderator: In any company tech talk or large-scale meeting, anyone can submit a question or pose an idea and people then vote them up or down the pipeline so that the ones people are most interested in get dealt with. This was itself a “20% project.”

And there’s plenty more just from this one company. What will you do to foster more innovation in your workplace?

December 9, 2015   Updated :November 16, 2016   Google, innovation, learning styles   

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