Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to top


Can Innovation Be Learned?

Can Innovation Be Learned?

| On 29, May 2008

James Todhunter

Reader Tim de Jardine raised the perennial question of “Can innovation be taught?”  It’s a question that comes up from time to time because of the persistent myth of the great thinker in the back room who is singularly gifted with the ability to create great ideas.  If one believes in this myth then one believes that people are either blessed with the ability to be innovative or they are not.  If you happen to be among the unfortunates that are not blessed with the gift then you can just forget about innovation because, as Andy Rooney once put it, “You can’t teach a fence post.”

However, the myth is just that – a myth.  I promised Tim that I would prepare a summary of the case for the innovation as a trainable skill.  So, here it is.

First, consider the following diagram.  It is a highly simplified model of the innovation thought process.  With out going into the relative merits and nuances of the Wallas versus Wertheimer thought models, this diagram draws upon the Wallas model in a way so as to facilitate a simple discussion.  It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words.  While I don’t know which thousand words are embodied in this diagram, there is a story being told here—a story of the birth of a big idea.

[IMG title=”Innovation Thinking” style=”MARGIN: 0px 0px 5px 5px” alt=”Innovation Thinking” src=”” border=0]

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  It is a response to a stimulus.  The stimulus is represented here by the Problem.  Consciously or sub-consciously, the innovator performs an analysis of the problem state.  This analysis can be roughly associated with the preparation phase of the Wallas model.  Through this analysis, the innovator gains a more intimate understanding of the problem and the unique attributes of the problem (represented by the bolt and sun icons) that define the requirements of potential solutions.

There is a second aspect to the innovative process which is termed in the Wallas model as the incubation phase.  In the diagram, this is termed “association“.  (I am not entirely happy with my word choice here, and the difficulty in identifying a word for this process is indicative of why the innovation myth is so persistent.  It is difficult for people to consider a concept for which there is not a name.)  This process of association is where the innovator draws upon knowledge to identify concepts that are applicable to the problem.  I have termed this association to stress the notion that the innovator is somehow filtering a potentially vast pool of knowledge and making the connections between the problem and its attributes to the specific conceptual knowledge that speaks to the attributes in a way that may contribute to a solution.

Eventually, when a critical mass of connections have been made the innovator is able to synthesize a new concept which is a potential innovative solution to the problem.  This act of synthesis is represented in the Wallas model as the illumination phase.  After the creation of the new solution concept, the innovator moves on with the arduous task of defining and refining a concrete expression of the innovation (corresponding to the final stage of the Wallas model, the verification and elaboration phase).

The purpose of breaking the process down in this way is to shed light on the notion that each of the component processes of innovation is something that any individual is able to perform.  The argument can be made that different people may have differing innate abilities in these areas.  It is reasonable to assume this is true, but the dominance of genetic influence over environmental expression is not clear. 

You may not have the highest level of natural talent for a discipline, but that does not mean that you can not attain some degree of mastery of the basic skill.  Though I will never play in Carnegie Hall, by dint of practice, I can play the piano beautifully.  There is even strong evidence that in the domain of cognitive function, some basic abilities can be developed over time as the brain retains the ability to regenerate and develop new connections well into old age.

The development of each of the component processes of innovative thinking can be enhanced through both training and technology.  There are many well understood and documented techniques for the problem analysis step.  These techniques are designed to help accelerate and clarify understanding of the problem state by identifying the unique problem attributes in a comprehensive and repeatable way.

Through the application of these techniques, innovation workers are able to focus their thinking more effectively by zeroing in on the right problem more quickly and having a much clearer concept of the metrics by which to evaluate potential solutions.  Technology can be applied to assist innovation practitioners in the application of specific methodologies to both shorten the path to mastery and ensure the accurate application of the method.

In the association process, there are many practical psychological methods to help facilitate making the connections which are the necessary precursor to the creative act of innovation.  The techniques have been successfully in wide use for many years.  Technology also can play a huge role in this area.  As the end result of problem analysis is a statement of design intent, technology can be used to surface concepts that map directly to the stated design intent—concepts which would otherwise be lost in the great sea of global knowledge.  By doing so, technology can place the innovation worker at the very apex of the confluence of information that leads to the state of illumination.

The same is true for the synthesis step.  Through the combination of method and technology, innovation workers can be led through the process of fitting the pieces together in a meaningful way and subsequently deriving a practical expression of the solution.

The proof points for this argument are easy to find and underscore the argument with a compelling body of evidence.

[Crossposted from]