How to Improve Your Innovation Skillset

By Tony Rossell, Senior Vice President

Some of the most used words by association professionals this past year have been “pivot,” “adapt,” and “shift gears.” We have had to make changes in real-time. In short, we have had to innovate.

The need to innovate has led me to study some of the best practices in building an innovative mindset and culture. I have found two books as helpful guides. First is How Innovation Works by Matt Ridley, which I wrote about here. The second is a classic, The Innovators DNA, by Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen.

The authors in The Innovators DNA did eight years of research to understand the crucial skill and practices that drive innovation. The outcome was identifying five specific skills that power innovation. These are skills that you can learn and cultivate. As they share, “we believe that you can find ways to more successfully develop the creative spark within yourself and others.”

Here are the skills that drive innovation and creativity.

  1. Associating: A theme for associating is that one + one = three. There are very few completely new discoveries. Instead, new ideas build on existing experiences and concepts. Innovators “connect wildly different ideas, objects, services, techniques, and disciplines to dish up new and unusual innovations.” One method to do this is to journal to capture your ideas and review them to connect them to new thoughts.
  2. Questioning: Innovation is supported by asking questions that challenge the status quo. Questions include “What is the current status?”, “What is the cause?”, “Why and why not?”, and finally, “What if?” These questions do not create innovation but set the platform for change.
  3. Observing: While questioning is very active, observing is more passive. By watching people, techniques, and processes, you gain insights into what works well and what does not work. You can observe customers and members as they do their jobs, visit and watch how other associations go about their work, and broaden your vision by going to different cultures to understand how they function.
  4. Networking. Many people feel they are good at networking. But the purpose of their networking focused on finding their next job or selling their services. Networking as an innovator is different. The goal of this networking is not to build a career but to discover new ideas. How can you do this? Attend conferences and events. Build relationships with experts in the field. Exchange ideas with people outside your community.
  5. Experimenting. I recently read Thomas Edison’s biography. We typically think of him as an inspired genius. But he did not view himself this way. He saw his inventions as inspiration by perspiration. To find the proper filament for the lightbulb, for example, he and his team tested 6,000 different materials. For associations, the marketing realm offers a beautiful laboratory for testing and experimentation. Everything from product ideas to value propositions to messaging can be tested, analyzed, and optimized.

In the year ahead, the saying that “The only thing that is constant is change” may be more accurate than ever. Developing the skills to respond to that change with new innovations is the best hope for dealing with what is to come.

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