insights & research

The Process of Innovation: Learning and Inventing

Are some people more creative than others? Do some people "naturally" come up with better, more innovative ideas? It may seem like this, but it is absolutely not the case.

Innovation is a process, not an event or an outcome. It is a process of finding and defining internal and external customer needs, developing solutions to address those needs, and successfully implementing those solutions. The needs – or problems to be solved – can be found across a broad spectrum of areas, including, but not limited to technology, products, markets, packaging, design, manufacturing processes, new business models, and new ways to go-to- market. The innovation process and the mental skills that make it work can be learned and become a daily habit that results in ongoing creative disruption and problem solving. Everyone can take part in this innovation process. Once learned and understood, people at every level of an organization can use it every day.

In an Executive MBA course we teach, we help student managers discover that they must internalize the process of creative problem solving. It must become part of everything they do every day: part of their vision of the world. Afterwards, the students emerge very changed, and say, “Creative problem solving – Simplexity - should not be an elective course; this should be the first course everyone takes in business schools. It teaches us how to think, not what to think. It is the basic learning in the process of management. All the other courses are a bunch of content subjects that teach us what to know (finance, accounting etc.) but need to fit into a process of creative thinking and problem solving that guides all of our activity.”

It is essential for all of us to recognize the importance of a creativity process to help us navigate our way to prosperity in a very fast changing world. While managing and improving efficiency is still an important skill, it is only one side of building a successful organization. Today’s managers must also expand their thinking to include the imaginative creative problem solving that builds organizational adaptability.

The first two stages of the Simplexity process tend to be more imaginative, and the last two stages more analytical, the ability to think up options (diverge) and the ability to evaluate options (converge) is used in all stages. Skillful use of the process draws upon a variety of kinds of knowledge, disciplines and expertise.

Some time ago, psychologist William J.J. Gordon suggested that inventing and learning are opposite forces that feed each other in turn. Inventing is characterized as a process of breaking old connections. Learning is characterized as a process of making new connections stick. When we invent, we “make the familiar strange” (by breaking old connections which compromise current understanding). This permits us to view old phenomena in new ways, although this can be uncomfortable at first. When we learn, we “make the strange familiar”, by making new connections between new (and thus strange) phenomena and our current understanding. This permits us to view new phenomena more comfortably.

In the circular depiction below, the problem solving process is viewed through this perspective. On the left side, new “paradigms” (ways of thinking and doing) become established. New processes are learned and become well-known and comfortable habits. On the right side, such old established paradigms are broken. New processes that produce better quality or new goods or services are invented to replace previous processes. When an old familiar paradigm such as a well-established business process is broken, the new one replacing it feels very strange and uncomfortable to everyone affected. They are experiencing a process of unlearning, breaking connections with past understanding and letting go of old habits and beliefs. As time goes on, the new process becomes less strange, and more familiar. This is a learning process – making new connections and adopting new habits and beliefs.

This cyclical process can also be viewed as representing the ‘operating’ versus ‘inventing’ sides of the modern business world. As new ‘inventing,’ or pattern breaking activity occurs, old and familiar processes are transformed into new and unknown activity. As we travel around the ongoing circle, those new patterns are converted into new familiar processes, and readied for additional transformation.

For individuals, internalizing the two-sided process of innovation will result in a new pattern of thinking and behavior that will be evident as different, effective and innovative. The process will develop skills in seeking new opportunities for change (no matter how disruptive they may seem at first) defining and clearly understanding those opportunities, allowing new ideas to emerge and flow through the necessary steps of evaluation, analysis, testing and optimization until new solutions (products, services, or procedures) are created and step-by-step plans for implementation are developed and undertaken.

However we name or describe this ongoing process, it is the basis of adaptability and innovation, and must be adopted as an everyday part of our personal and organizational lives. Looking to become more creative? Learn and Invent.

Written by: Bob Basadur and Min Basadur

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