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Can You Teach Innovation?

March 21, 2011

Can You Teach Innovation?

I believe the answer to this question is . . . both no and yes.  (This is not as “wishy-washy” an answer as it may seem.) Research suggests that the propensity to be innovative is inherent in many people, if not all of us. Some of us have a much greater propensity than others. However it is very difficult to teach or develop innovative thinking directly because it entails a combination of information analysis or synthesis coupled with strong conceptual or problem-solving skills. It is a complex composite skill set. Therefore innovative thinking is not easily or readily taught. It evolves from a way of thinking in which new and creative concepts are formed through the synthesis knowledge and ideas. This creative process is developed over time and is a product of a culture that encourages cross pollination of ideas, interactive communication, pursuing opportunities to freely explore and experiment, healthy risk taking, and openness to unconventional perspectives.

Innovation must be nurtured and nourished in the larger culture. That may be a national or societal culture, spiritual culture, educational culture, organizational or business culture, competitive culture, team culture, or home culture. When these environments promote and reinforce the dimensions that develop and foster innovativeness, it will grow and flourish. This will be especially apparent for those most naturally inclined to offer creative ideas and solutions and who have strong conceptual skills.

Several years ago, I did a lot of work in China, much of it for Tsinghua University. One of their objectives was to become more innovative and for their students to be as well. There was also a big push by the Chinese government to promote innovation. Huge billboards and signs practically commanded citizens to innovate and embrace innovation as a value. If only it was that easy.

My contacts at Tsinghua described the Chinese educational system as very didactic. The teacher is the authority and expert. Students are there to listen, take notes, and absorb what they are taught. Asking questions or challenging ideas is not encouraged. As one Chinese professional explained, “When a student asks a question the assumption is that he or she was not smart enough to understand the content when it was explained.” It’s not assumed that the student is intellectually curious, has a thirst for greater knowledge, or wants to discuss a different viewpoint.  When I asked if teachers asked students questions to promote discussion and share different perspectives, I heard two different responses, both somewhat revealing. One professor asked, “Why would you ask a question if you already know the answer?” Another said, “Why would a teacher ask a question if he didn’t know the answer or if it could be debated?” They saw asking questions as a risk to their credibility rather than a way to promote critical or innovative thinking. A culture that embraces or reinforces such teaching methods will not produce an abundance of innovation. It will promote rule following and conformity.

What if we desired to become more personally innovative? What if we wanted to make a creative change on our own lives? How could we make that possible even if our natural propensity for innovation is not high? I do not believe you can teach yourself. What you can do is to create experiences for yourself that will further develop your ability to think more creatively and become more innovative. Here are a twelve tips:

  • Change your environment inside your home and workspace.
  • Become more adventurous. Participate in new and a far greater range of activities.
  • Spend time in different cultures. Learn how people in different cultures think and understand how that may differ from your own. What can you learn from them?
  • Challenge your own assumptions and beliefs. Ask yourself, “What if my assumption(s) or belief(s), were not true?” and “What if the assumptions of others are true?” Go out of your way to listen to and absorb other perspectives and ideas. Seek how others came to very different conclusions as you and study their logic paths? Consider if there are truths in both perspectives and how they can be blended.
  • Think about how you can combine ideas to create better solutions. Move beyond thinking from an “either/or” perspective. Think about how to utilize the best of many ideas or alternative solutions.
  • Seek friends and colleagues from different cultures and backgrounds. Ask questions to understand them and suspend judgment. Try not to look at their perspective only though your personal or cultural lens.
  • Think from the perspective of others. If you were in their shoes, how would you perceive various situations?
  • Take moderate risks by exploring and experimenting. Don’t worry about failing. Concentrate on learning and succeeding. Setbacks can be great learning experiences.
  • Eliminate saying or thinking, “Yes, but . . .” Do not dismiss automatically ideas, suggestions, or points of view without carefully considering them. Keep an open mind. Seek their merits, explore them further, and look for the gem that may be hidden within them.
  • Identify appropriate metaphors and analogies and seek what can be learned or borrowed from them to expand your thinking or break our of ruts. Identify best practices from the work and experience of others, and consider how they can be applied on your circumstances.
  • Think about creating possibilities rather than identifying limitations or thinking within established parameters. Ask, what if this constraint did not exist? Or how can we overcome it?
  • Remember, wisdom evolves from our life experiences. The greater our diversity of experience, the greater our ability to develop innovative concepts and solutions.

You can become more personally innovative. You cannot teach yourself. You can create the environment and conditions for further developing it.

Steve Weitzenkorn

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2011 2:44 am


    This is an interesting post. Recently in one of India’s newspapers a similar article apeared with the quiz to check whether a person is right brained or left brained. A person who is right brained is creative and innovative in their thinking. Whereas a person who is left brained is an orgnaizer and planner. It answered a number of questions as to why I always think at a tangent with everybody else. And ofcourse why a disorganized routine which my friends call method in madness appears to be very normal to me.

    So to answer your question, I think if that study was accurate innovative thinking is more of a brain gearing rather than something which can be forced or taught to someone. I think natural aspects come through in behavior and everyday life. It also is a good indicator to find out for job roles- is the orgnaization looking for an innovator or implementor.


  2. William permalink
    July 25, 2012 6:19 pm

    I’m in love with your post cos it upholds what we at Brain-nest also believe in. God richly bless you

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