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Are Innovators Born? Or Made?

By - Jul 9 2015

innovation pic
Are you the next Steve Jobs? You might be, according to an Israeli firm that has made teaching innovation its business. Its work is a response to a shift in the world today, one that’s raised the bar for professionals in all industries to strive not for the status quo, but for innovation, ingenuity, and out-of-the-box approaches to traditional obstacles. But with creative superstars like the late Mr. Jobs possessing rare creativity that seems nearly unreachable, can true innovators like him be made? Or are they simply born?

Made, says Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), a Tel-Aviv based company whose mission it is to help organizations generate new value by making the potential, possible. In a visit to Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) headquarters in Washington, DC, SIT partner Yoni Stern shared his company’s methodology with us, and inspired us to rethink how we think.

Setting the stage with a definition, Mr. Yoni reminded us that at its roots, “innovation” is simply “thinking and acting differently in a useful way.” Then to get us operating both usefully and inventively, he shared some of the how behind innovation, condensing SIT’s unique methodology into digestible tips, some of which I will share with you today. Let’s get started:

  1. First, break out of your cognitive fixedness: Ok, so you’re probably thinking “cognitive what?” Cognitive fixedness is the state of mind in which an object or situation is perceived in a specific way, excluding any alternative. Cognitive fixedness is a trait we all exhibit, and one whose benefits give us solid, reliable, and efficient routines. But what is the price of too much cognitive fixedness? A limited ability to break free and innovate. Stern reminds us that to be creative, we have to sometimes step out of our comfort zones, ditch our routines, and approach obstacles in a novel way.
  2. Second, remember that constraints foster innovation. To see what we mean, look no further than this shopping cart-turned grill apparatus, which one very innovative individual probably devised in absence of an actual grill. In this hungry scenario, where meat needs cooking but no grill is available, the lack of grill that originally posed a constraint instead generated true innovation. “Constraints force us to be creative with what we have,” said Mr. Stern “and they can come from many sources: organizations, markets, regulations, suppliers, feasibility, etc.” As such, SIT’s method is not to give clients resources but rather take them away, constricting them until they have no option but to think outside-the-grill.
  3. Third, identify patterns. Though innovation implies novelty, it doesn’t always require reinventing the wheel. Rather, Mr. Stern tells not to underestimate “the power of templates.” Templates or patterns can be used as thinking tools and help innovators organize their thoughts. For an example, he cited advertising as a particular industry where winning patterns yield success. In “Cracking the Ad Code,” Professor Jacob Goldenberg and his colleagues confirm this, explaining that 89 percent of 200 award winning ads fall into a few simple patterns that prove effective time and again.
  4. Fourth, ditch structural fixedness. Similar to its cognitive counterpart, Mr. Stern defines structural fixedness as the tendency to view an object as a whole with a defined structure that cannot be changed. Structural fixedness restricts creativity by implying that new mediations of ideas and devices must remain loyal to original structures, when perhaps the idea or device would benefit from a different structure altogether. So how does one break away from such structural fixedness? Through, among other strategies, division, or dividing a product or process into its components and randomly rearranging them in time or space. Mr. Stern showed us that through division great innovation can be achieved, as exemplified by updates in refrigerators throughout the years, or the brilliant idea to put yogurt probiotics into the straw to increase shelf life.

So, are you the next Steve Jobs yet? Probably not, but being mindful that simple strategies can enhance your capacity for innovation can help get you there. Thanks to Mr. Stern, we now have proof that innovation is by no means out of reach. Some innovators may be born. But with some enlightenment, they can be made, too.

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