Fostering innovation

Human history is the history of innovation. Our ability first to adapt to our environment and then to adapt our environment to us, is unparalleled. Our innovations have given us the life we lead today. Whilst many bring huge benefits, the benefits of some are questionable. Others have a clearly negative, often unforeseen, impact, leading to situations where further innovation is needed to put things right. What is clear, is that we are on a path where innovation will become ever more important. There’s no going back from here.

Much has been written about the creative mind and the psychology of innovation and creativity – the search for the chemistry of the ‘eureka’ moment. However, looking at selected great leaps forward, typically associated with individual moments of deep insight, is probably a distraction. The gradual developments, whether individual or collective, that make up the far greater body of innovation, is where the future lies.

And we need this now, more than ever. Our current situation means that individuals, teams, organizations and whole nations are needing to find new ways of working together. Many employees now find themselves working from home, having to conduct meetings, training courses and other typically in-person events using virtual technology methods. Companies are already looking to the future, anticipating how they will need to adapt to a world different from only a few months ago. The ability to innovate will separate those that succeed from those that don’t. And for life to fully return to what it was, we will all rely on the ability of drug companies to find new vaccines.

We’re all innovators. We learn, grow and develop, changing all the time. We may not all do it in the same way, at the same rate or to the same extent, but we all do it. Some people are seen as being more ‘innovative’ than others, but everyone has a role to play in the process. And without involving everyone the process is often incomplete and the results far less than they might have been. The challenge is to nurture innovation in all its forms, especially when working with disparate teams that may have limited opportunities for direct interaction.

An important aspect of innovation is how we view change. This is a core aspect of thinking style commonly labelled ‘openness’ or ‘pragmatism’. In fact, openness and pragmatism are often seen as opposite ends of a continuum. At one end you have people who embrace change, conceptual thinking, creativity and independence of thought – these are the change agents. At the other end you have people who value what is known, are practical and outcome focussed, and who are happy to take the lead from others. Though not always viewed as drivers of change, for these people change is steady, incremental and introduced only after consideration. Both have an equal role to play.

In today’s complex world, innovation is rarely individual. Instead it is the result of many people coming together with different knowledge and alternative perspectives. In such a situation, the catalyst for successful innovation lies in how we communicate, explore issues and work together. Again, we can think of this as a continuum. At one end you have those who readily communicate, want to talk through their ideas and innovate through acting with others. At the other are those who want to take time to think through their ideas independently, presenting them for consideration only when they have had time to think them through and reflect. This sounds a lot like the classic personality dimension of ‘introversion’ and ‘extraversion’. Again, both have an equal role to play in innovation.

So, we have two aspects of personality that independently relate to innovation. But when we put them together, we get something much more powerful. Everybody’s personality preferences will vary along the extraversion-introversion scale and along the pragmatism-openness scale. Combining these two scales gives insight into richer variations; how these characteristics work together and support innovation, as shown below.