How is your business adjusting to advancements in artificial intelligence? Are your products addressing consumers’ increasing desire to manage everything from just a few internet-connected devices? Is your business ready for 5G mobile wireless? If you’re like most CEOs, these and other developments in the fast-changing business landscape are keeping you up at night.
Maintaining your edge requires innovation. As a CEO, you can’t drive all your company’s innovation yourself—you need your entire leadership team on board. To foster innovation, every leader in your organization—executives, VPs, directors, and managers—must support creative ideas, think strategically, and challenge the status quo. Of course, that’s easier said than done. You can’t just make innovation a mandate; you have to make it a habit. That means knowing what the right innovative behaviors are, and helping your leaders internalize them so they become automatic.
Four Keys to Innovation
Innovating means proposing creative solutions to important problems. In our extensive research and testing of nearly 800 executives for my book THE LEADER HABIT and for our online leadership training program, my team and I discovered four behaviors that effective leaders practice when they innovate:
- Think “outside the box” by combining seemingly unrelated ideas; see the connections between information that others don’t see.
- Brainstorm creative solutions to problems; the solutions are novel, unique, and unexpected.
- Celebrate and encourage experimentation and calculated risk-taking; inspire others to try something new.
- Focus innovative efforts on problems that are meaningful and pressing rather than innovating for the sake of innovation.
“Creative thinking is wasted effort if it doesn’t solve important problems.”
Once you understand that these behaviors are the keys to innovation, you need your leaders to turn them into habits. This requires deliberate practice—on average, 66 days of practice for each new behavior, according to scientific research. To help people practice their innovation skills, my team and I created four simple exercises designed to be completed in less than five minutes, making them easy to do every day.
5-Minute Daily Exercises to Turn Innovation into a Habit
Exercise 1: Combine seemingly unrelated ideas.
Creative insight usually comes when people discover the commonality between two things that at first appear to be unrelated. To get in the habit of thinking outside the box, have your leaders practice this exercise: After you or someone else uses the word “but” when describing two opposite ideas, ask, “How are these two things connected?” Write down the answer. For example, someone could say, “Most customers love our product, but there are some who hate it,” and the connection between the two apparent opposites is that all customers have a strong emotional reaction to your product.
Exercise 2: Brainstorm creative solutions.
In the context of this exercise, creativity means solving a problem in an unconventional way—in other words, not using an established process. On a daily basis your leaders could practice brainstorming creative solutions by imagining they had an unlimited budget for solving problems: After learning about a problem, ask yourself, “How would I solve this problem if I had all the money in the world?” Write down one idea. For example, you might realize that to serve your customers better, you need to create a new prototype team to test and document new solutions before rolling them out to clients.
Exercise 3: Celebrate experimentation.
Your leaders can get in the habit of inspiring others to try a new approach and learn from it by practicing this exercise: After someone proposes a new idea, ask, “What would it take to try this?” Write down the answer. After hearing the details, they may decide to pilot-test the new idea.
Exercise 4: Focus creative efforts on meaningful problems.
Creative thinking is wasted effort if it doesn’t solve important problems. This exercise will help your leaders get in the habit of focusing innovation on things that matter: After coming up with a new idea, ask yourself, “How is this addressing our most important problem?” Write down the answer. For example, someone may propose to rent out a portion of an office building your company owns, and the additional income could address your company’s problem of seasonal cash flow inconsistency by providing a new source of stable revenue.
Leaders who innovate well give their organizations a competitive advantage by creating products and services that stand apart from the competition. By implementing these simple exercises with your leaders, you will create a culture of experimentation and continuous improvement and inspire every employee to be more creative. As innovation becomes a habit throughout your organization, it will help you maintain your technological edge in 2018 and beyond.