Two Skills that Separate True Innovators from the Rest of Us
Legendary innovation gurus are both “legendary” and “gurus” for good reason.
In 2011, Clayton Christensen, Jeffrey Dyer and Hal Gregerson published an excellent book (The Innovator’s DNA) in which – after studying the habits of famous innovative entrepreneurs and surveying thousands of creative individuals – they identify five “discovery skills” that distinguish the most creative people: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking.
Although all five skills are essential, this post focuses only on observing and questioning.
Observe and Take Notes
“Innovators carefully, intentionally, and consistently look out for small behavioral details – in the activities of customers, suppliers, and other companies – in order to gain insights about new ways of doing things,” say the book’s authors.
The truth is, observation can be interpreted in many ways and happens at different levels. There is “scientific” observation: the kind where you wear your social scientist cap, grab a camera and a notebook (or a smartphone), explore the world, watch people in their natural states, take notes, reflect, and draw pertinent conclusions.
But this takes practice. In our age of short attention spans and continuous distractions, not all of us are Sherlock Holmes (or Al-Muhaqeq Conan). But through repetition and mentorship, we refine our abilities.
There is another, less practiced, type of observation. Any guesses? Here’s a hint by John Coleman: “Deep, broad reading habits are often a defining characteristic of our greatest leaders and can catalyze insight, innovation, empathy, and personal effectiveness.”
One of the most popular posts on the Harvard Business Review blog is a short essay titled ‘For Those Who Want to Lead, Read.’ “Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives,” says author Stephen Johnson, “Bill Gates [and Ray Ozzie] are famous for taking annual reading vacations. During the year they deliberately cultivate a stack of reading material – much of it unrelated to their day-to-day focus at Microsoft – and then they take off for a week or two and do a deep dive into the words they've stockpiled.”
I was shocked while reading Einstein’s biography to find out that history’s most popular genius was studying science and philosophy when he was only thirteen; “In all those years, I never saw him reading any light literature,” remembers Einstein’s childhood tutor Max Talmud.
Reading is, by far, the most beneficial way to develop our minds and acquire fresh ideas. There is tremendous benefit in observing great innovators in action, studying their lives, drawing parallels between their individual personalities and their contributions, and applying their best habits in our own lives.
Question the Unquestionable
“The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question”. I asked one of my friends who had recently graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education what the single most important thing she learned was, and she replied saying that they were taught it was more important to ask questions than to find answers.
Nearly all innovations start with a question – and not necessarily a complicated or a brilliant one. Basic, naïve questions that force us to re-examine and understand the fundamentals of a problem are often the origin of major innovations.
Why can’t cell phones have one button? Enter the iPhone. Why do we separate artists from scientists? Welcome to the MIT Media Lab. Can we fly like birds? Can we edit photos on the spot and share them with the world instantly? Can we take a bath without water? Can we make wood out of recycled paper? Can we make paper books without paper?
“Most managers focus on understanding how to make existing processes – the status quo – work a little better. Innovative entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are much more likely to challenge assumptions,” say Christensen, Dyer and Gregersen.
Nevertheless, challenging assumptions is easier said than done. Our experiences shape our minds and our worldview and, hence, it becomes quite difficult to think beyond our “framework”. As kids we are taught that it is impolite to ask too many questions- schools often don’t help much either. Yet, creative masters are the people who are unimpressed with conventional wisdom; they’re the kids who sat in the back of the class (or dropped out of school altogether) and were unsatisfied with the way things were.
But “things” were not always like this. In Ibn Al-Haytham: First Scientist, Bradley Steffens shares some of the Islamic traditional culture of learning: “[Students would be] required to participate in munazarah, or debates. As in modern debates, the participants in munazarah would pose difficult and controversial questions to each other. Answers were judged on their thoroughness and soundness of logic”. Those are the kinds of environments that lead to intellectual flowering (perhaps a reason why the MENA region witnessed one of the most innovative periods of human history).
So how can you cultivate observing and questioning as natural habits and weave them into the fabric of your personality? Three things (add them to your new year’s resolution):
- Read a lot. John Coleman recommends joining a reading group (you can start one with your friends) and I know from experience that they work fantastically. Some of us are busier than others, but even allocating 30 minutes a day to read a book – not a blog, not an article (although those are important, too) – can be highly rewarding. Oh, and read in a variety of fields, you never know where good ideas come from!
- Spend more time with kids. All innovators have a child-like curiosity that they employ to question everything, and the best way to develop a child-like curiosity is to spend time with children. Listen to their questions, write them down, try to answer them, re-articulate them and apply them to your work.
- Spend time alone. You’ll be surprised to find out that a significant amount of creative people are introverts who spend plenty of time reflecting and working in solitude. With phones buzzing all the time and back-to-back work filling our days and nights, it’s almost impossible to enjoy a few uninterrupted minutes of silence. Make time to spend time alone (laptops shut, phones off – please), and use this time to nap, read, write, reflect, or just watch the sunset.
Forgive me, but I cannot over-emphasize the importance of reading. My graduate studies professors ask us to question everything we read and not to take anything for granted (one of them actually purposely tells us wrong information to test whether or not we will double-check what he’s saying!).
Exciting changes are happening in the region. But if we truly want better futures for our countries then we need to create a culture of reading and lifelong learning in our communities. There is no other way, the first revelation was “Read!”
Oubai is a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering at McGill University. He is interested in crowd-driven innovation and multidisciplinary collaborations. His main passion is human-design interaction and the role design plays in shaping society and culture. Oubai is also the cofounder of theArab Development Initiative. You can reach him @obeikurdy.