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Fostering Innovation

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Innovation and creativity have long been subject to an unspoken nature v. nurture debate, wherein a large number of people believe that the true visionaries are born and that innovation cannot be taught. Take Frank Lloyd Wright, for example. Long considered to be one of the world’s greatest architects, Wright’s vision seems a product of luck and a unique synaptic map; in reality, the roots of his aesthetic can be traced to a combination of influences.  He was an apprentice to another great Chicago architect, Louis Sullivan, where he was exposed to a blend of Celtic and Art Nouveau influences. Add to that the elegant simplicity of the Japanese forms he studied, and Wright’s unique integration of these styles can be understood as having been both learned and invented.

It’s true that innovation has to start with the right mindset. Edward de Bono coined the term “lateral thinking,” suggesting a thought process that involves breadth of ideas rather than a logical, linear path. But this methodology can, in fact, be taught.  Getting people to think more creatively involves what’s referred to as “frame-breaking training”: forcing the mind to break with its usual patterns of thought. Luckily, often this can be brought about simply by a change in perspective.

If you are a leader, how can you begin to yield innovative thinking within the workplace? First, it will be important to foster this frame of mind. As a leader, you have the ability to promote a culture that increases the likelihood of creativity. If you are seen as supporting new ideas, you will lend yourself more to breakthrough thinking. In some cases—especially in regards to tech firms—organizations will go so far as to “celebrate” failure, because it represents a risk taken along the way to an innovative solution. Constantly punishing failure may deter your people from taking risks in the name of creativity, as few creative processes will immediately yield the best solution.

Additionally: take your employees somewhere. With regards to perspective-changing, we mean this piece both literally and figuratively. A major airline sent their incumbent cabin crew on a training exercise with plane tickets and hotel vouchers, and asked them to travel for a week. When they returned, they were alive with questions and suggestions; having traveled themselves, they began to see their role through the eyes of their prospective passengers and came forth with many innovative ideas on how to improve customer service. Routine is a necessary and often celebrated evil and should doubtlessly be present in healthy doses. But the workplace should do its part to counteract the effects of routine at minimum, even if it’s as simple as changing rooms where meetings are held.

As de Bono writes in his book, “Six Thinking Hats”:

“Thinking is the ultimate human resource. Yet we can never be satisfied with our most important skill. No matter how good we become, we should always want to be better. Usually, the only people who are very satisfied with their thinking skill are those poor thinkers who believe that the purpose of thinking is to prove yourself right—to your own satisfaction. If we have only a limited view of what thinking can do, we may be smug about our excellence in this area, but not otherwise.”

First, get your people to ask “How?” Then, push them to ask, “How else?”

How important is innovation to your workplace? How do you, as a leader, attempt to foster an innovative culture?

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