The Berg Consulting blog - information, opinion and the latest news on innovation strategy and leadership.

How to think like an innovator

Robynne Berg - Monday, September 09, 2013

The three foundation behaviours of innovation.

Innovative thinking has been named the single most important management competency for future success. In a fast changing world faced with emerging disruptive technologies and shifting economies it will be the companies and leaders who can innovate who will survive.

In the time it’s taken you to read to this point, over one million facebook entries have been made. Evert minute two million emails and twelve million texts are sent. By the end of each day 1800 hours of youtube video have been uploaded.

Every two days the world generates digital information equal to all the information created, including every word ever written, from the dawn of time until 2003.

Is it any wonder managers are feeling overwhelmed? The temptation is to wait for things to go back to normal. Only this is the new normal. You either adapt to fast changing times or your risk becoming irrelevant.

Increasingly boards and executives are seeking CEOs and managers who are innovative thinkers and who can drive innovative organisations. Operational and strategic competence is no longer enough. Successful leaders will be those who can successfully engage different people and ideas to create innovative cultures and practices.

This means establishing an innovative practice across the entire workplace by constantly and consistently pursuing greater value and performance in terms of your products, services, processes, financial systems and customer relationships. There is no job function or business unit that cannot be significantly improved through innovation.

So what does this mean for you? It means you must become innovative and must start leading innovative teams.  You must become an innovator.

Many managers baulk at this idea: that they must become an innovator. “I’m not an innovator,” they declare, “My skills are operational” or “I manage the finance team; innovation belongs in the product development team”, or “I’m a left brain analytical type: get me out of here!”

But this is where our understanding of innovation and innovative thinking is amiss. Innovation is not the domain of the chosen few. Researchers have found that whilst our IQ is largely innate (about 80% attributed to genetics) or ability to innovate is about 70% behavioural. In other words, we can learn to innovate.

So what is it that creates great innovators and how can you become more innovative?

What makes innovators different?

A recent study* into the minds of innovators found that there was one key distinction between innovators and the rest of us.  They found that innovators have an exceptional ability to connect seemingly disparate ideas together in what they call ‘associating’. Associating is a cognitive skill in connecting ideas together.

This capacity to connect different ideas leads to flashes of creativity, the genesis of new ideas and new ways of seeing the world. These flashes of creativity are something we’ve all experienced before, although we more commonly refer to them as ah-huh moments.

Think back to those moments when you’ve had an ah-huh moment and you will realise that this moment has transpired at the intersection of two different ideas. You’ve connected the dots and suddenly see a situation differently that you did just a few moments earlier.

Innovators have developed the cognitive ability to experience more frequent ‘ah-huh’ moments than the rest of us.  This cognitive capacity is something that you too can develop.

The skill of ‘associating cognitive skill can be developed and strengthened through the practice of specific behaviours. From these, three foundations behaviours can be identified.

The foundation behaviours are curiosity, opening your mind and experimenting


Curiosity is the first foundation behaviour of innovation. Developing your curiosity is about seeing the world through new eyes. It’s about asking questions and looking beyond the conventional wisdoms and the things many of us take for granted.

Most businesses operate on a foundation of conventional wisdoms and assumptions that have been established and agreed by the industry and the business.  Each business possesses it’s own unique set of conventional wisdoms and assumptions that becomes imbedded into the companies DNA and its culture.  Over time the whole organisation adapts to these conventions and starts to follow a similar pattern of thinking; a pattern of thinking we don’t notice, let alone question. Everyone has started thinking ‘inside the box’. When an organisation loses it’s ability to question its assumptions and starts thinking ‘inside the box’ it becomes rigid and resistant to change; the two biggest barriers to innovation.

I have noticed as an innovation consultant is that this rigidity and ‘inside the box’ thinking becomes more prevalent and harder to manoeuvre the further one moves up within the organisation. In other words, the more senior you are the less likely you are able to think beyond the assumptions of your organisation and its boundaries.  Senior staff often feel obligated to create certainty and refine processes and therefore they adopt and adhere more strenuously to the conventional wisdoms and assumptions set by the organisation. As a result they often find it harder to break into creative and innovative thinking and are more blinkered to the opportunities that lie outside their viewpoint. It makes it all the more imperative that leadership teams prioritise developing their personal competence in innovative thinking.

Many of the great innovations of our time have resulted from someone questioning an assumption and looking beyond the boundaries set by industry.  For example: conventional wisdom dictates that socks had to match. Ten years ago Jonah Straw wondered why it was that socks had to match. His curiosity lead to the creation of Little Miss Matched; a company that makes mismatched socks and sells them in sets of three rather than pairs. Last year’s sales were US$88M.

In the 1980s everyone thought the circus was a dying industry until Guy Laliberte looked beyond the boundaries to the traditional circus and wove theatre and storytelling into the model to create Cirque de Soleil: a company with 19 shows in over 270 cities around the world generating over $850M per year.

A fundamental step in the process of creating an innovation strategy is to look beyond the conventional wisdoms and assumptions laid down by our industry and our business. You need to develop a curiosity that extends beyond the world that is familiar to you. Blue Ocean Strategy uses a tool called the six paths of innovation; six paths of exploration that require clients to look beyond the boundaries of industries, market groups and time and adopt a curiosity that create the new ideas and insights that lead to innovation.

When developing your competence in innovative thinking it’s important to first understand the assumptions and conventional wisdoms surrounding your business, from its products, customers, business model and processes. Once you’ve identified the assumptions you can start questioning and debunking them one by one.

When you develop a discipline in questing assumptions and foster a curious culture you will start to think more critically and will open yourself to new possibilities and ideas.

Open Your Mind

However you don’t become innovative simply by being curious and looking beyond your assumptions. You also need to foster and nurture your ability to create innovative ideas by coming into contact with many different ideas and perspectives. The second foundation behaviour is opening your mind.

Ideas do not come from nowhere. The idea that innovators have eureka moments they create something from nothing is one of the great myths. An apple never did fall on Newton’s head.

Instead innovators seek out and collect different ideas and perspectives knowing that eventually ideas will bump into each other; they’ll connect into ah-huh moments and innovative ideas.

Many professionals tend to focus on developing their technical skills believing this will help them get better at their work. But if you only attend conferences or join professional associations directly connected to your job function you will be limiting your knowledge capacity for new insights. You cannot innovate when you limit the scope of your knowledge. 

How did Richard Branson move from running an independent record company to an airline? Because he didn’t limit his interests and knowledge around just one industry.

Steve Jobs was not only interested in computers. He followed other interests and passions including taking up calligraphy classes when he was at university. He studied calligraphy for no other reason than he loved it: he had no expectation it would have any impact on his professional life.  That is until ten years later when he was developing the typography for the first Macintosh. Suddenly his knowledge of calligraphy, fonts and typefaces returned. The reason we have such a beautiful plethora of fonts and desk top publishing styles to work with today is because Steve Jobs pursued his interests; even the ones not aligned to his professional interests.

Ideas flourish when you develop broader interests. It may be science fairs or ideas festivals or taking up an interest. These interests don’t just feed your personal interests, they feed your imagination and your capacity to think innovatively.

As well as opening our minds to new interests and ideas you need to bring new perspectives and ways of thinking to your work and your life, which you do through extending your networks. It’s about bringing different people with different views and skills and outlooks into our world to help us shape our work.

Innovative companies like Google, Apple or Amazon are deliberately structured to ensure that different people integrate and work together. They know that truly great ideas are the result of many different disciplines, personalities and outlooks. Similarly in all innovation research centres such as PARC, scientists and researchers across different fields are often brought together because it’s been found that different disciplines and fields create greatest environment for innovation.

The principle is the same for you, in your life and your work. When you open yourself to new people (people who lie outside your department, your industry, your social network and your world view), your world will expand. As your world expands and enriches through contact with different people and perspectives you will deepen and broaden your capacity of innovative ideas and ah huh moments.

Finally, opening your mind is about giving space to your ideas. Ideas connect at the point that you let them go and give them the space to connect.

Most ah-huh moments and flashes of inspiration don’t take place in the office. They take place in the shower, or in your sleep or whilst your on holidays.

Marc Benioff, creator of Salesforce, came up with the idea of cloud-based software whilst swimming with dolphins on a family holiday. That dolphin tour spawned an idea now worth $13 Billion.

Einstein meditated several times a day, referring to it as the way he reached answers without have to first ask questions.

Creating the space for ideas to connect requires you to take breaks during the day at work, take holidays, and take time for meditation or reflection. 

When you open your mind to new interests, people and quiet moments you will give you broaden and deepen your perspectives and you will cultivate an environment that allows ideas the chance to connect into innovative ideas.


Through practising curiosity and opening your mind to different perspectives you will develop your capacity to create innovative ideas. However great ideas have no actual value until such point as you action them.  An idea will only have value at the point that you action it through experimentation. Experimenting is the third foundation of innovation.

Actioning innovative ideas has been the key reason for innovation failure. And that is partly because it requires us to let go of our desire for control and perfection.  Great ideas simply do not arrive in perfect packages. From the seed of a great idea must come a process of experimentation. And that means failure.

All great ideas have failure embedded deeply and tightly into their foundations. Sir James Dyson created 5127 prototypes (5126 failures) before he perfected the Dyson Vacuum Cleaner. Similarly Edison made about 3000 prototypes of the lightbulb.

Innovation is born from failure. If you fear failure then it may be better to just copy. Becoming a copyist will keep you removed from small failures, but it will also remove your from growth. The copyist is likely to have chosen an endurance race with ultimate failure rising up to greet him at the finish line.

Innovation is the life source of new growth and opportunity. And at its heart lies failure. What most people don’t realise is that failure offers exceptional value. That value lies in what you learn. As long as you are learning from failure you should be pursuing it wholeheartedly. Failure is the accepted behaviour of the bold.

The idea is to test, fail, learn and test again. Unfortunately not all your ideas will be great ideas. And that’s okay. You will have lost nothing and gained everything. Experimenting is a process of testing, failing and learning will invariably lead to new insights, new ah-huh moments and new ideas. New ideas that might transform your team, your business and your career.

The goal is to get your ideas into experimentation as soon as possible. Don’t wait for your idea to be perfect before testing it; this will just lead to wasted time and resources. If the idea is not so great, or it needs major revisions it’s important take the insights and let it fail as early as possible. Imagine if James Dyson had waited for a perfect prototype every time he experimented with his vacuum cleaner; it would never have happened.

So get out there, experiment with your ideas and become comfortable with the process of testing, failing, learning and testing again.

Start Practising the Behaviours: Now!

Increasingly you will find that boards and executives will seek leaders who can bring together different people and ideas together to create innovative products, departments and organisations.

Those leaders who fail to adapt to these fast changing times or who languish in the shadows waiting to see if it all blows over may find themselves faced with their own irrelevance.

In stark contrast those leaders who chose to develop innovative practices and enable innovative teams will position themselves at the forefront of their organisations and industries.  The opportunities to be found as you lead your team or organisation to innovation will be boundless and rewarding.

The journey to becoming innovative is about developing a practice. You must commit to practising each of the three foundation behaviours; being curious, opening your mind and experimenting every day.

Over time, as with any practice you will develop and strengthen your capacity to think innovatively and successfully drive innovation through you team and organisation.

Over time you will become an innovator, providing immeasurable value to your customers, your business and your career.

Start today: what can you do to become more curious, be more open and experiment with new ideas?

This article is an excerpt from my keynote ‘How to think like an innovator’.



*  This study was basis of the book The Innovators DNA by Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen – refer the book review in this newsletter


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