Cultivating Innovation

Innovation is one of the most commonly encouraged competencies in corporations these days. It is challenging to develop because it entails absolute participation and willingness of the learner, who has to or wants to develop the competency. It cannot be enforced through a policy or a process.

One of the most common comments I come across while coaching/training on innovation is “I am not creative, so innovation is difficult for me.” While I believe each one of us is creative and only need to open up to it, that is a discussion for another day.

Creativity versus Innovation

For the moment, let me clarify what I mean by the two terms. Creativity operates in a boundary-free context while innovation has a defined context. To expand, creativity is like painting on a blank canvas; there are no rules or regulations about how the canvas needs to get painted. Creativity is the way children are, in their natural state. A child can be in a playroom and play doctor, believing all the while that he is in a hospital. There is no pressure to create anything specific, no deliverables and usually, no economic impact.

In the corporate context, innovation has a defined context. The context could be about the existing products/services, competition, upcoming launches, etc. So when a company expects employees to be innovative, they expect ideas that have not been used so far. Thus, innovation begins with a capacity for ideation.

Of course, a lot of corporate innovations have happened by accident (such as the creation of post-it notes, Ivory soap, etc.). And sometimes, creativity plays a role too. That does not mean all of us cannot be innovative.

The Problem Solving Process

Regardless of who we are, all of us engage in problem solving. A child needs to solve mathematical problems at school. A homemaker needs to maintain a clean, efficient house. A professional needs to cater to customers’ issues. A businessperson needs to manage cash-flow. A beggar needs to feed his hungry stomach. Typically, the process we follow is this:

Problem solving process

While this is an efficient process, the results thus generated are often guided by habit and judgments. In the process of generating solutions using the limited knowledge we have, we usually fall prey to repetitive patterns of thoughts and opinions, not allowing for presence and originality.

Turning on the Innovation Switch

Innovation requires inquiry into ideas, not advocacy of positions. In other words, we need to drop existing or pre-conceived notions and a fixation for immediate solutions, if we aspire for innovation. It does not mean innovation takes a huge amount of time, but it can be a quick only if we change our habitual pattern of thoughts.

Compared to problem solving, the innovation process has one key additional step. It can be illustrated thus:

Insights process

The key to innovation is insight – reasons that help us understand the real need in question. The process of gaining insights requires us to momentarily stop generating solutions and simply dwell in the existing situation. The beauty of this process is that it stops us from engaging with habitual patterns of thought and allows us to explore newer layers of the situation at hand, leading to the real need that mandates a response.

Tools for Innovation

Here are a couple of ways in which we can gain insights into a situation:

5-Why Analysis

The 5-Why analysis is an iterative questioning technique used to explore cause and effect relationships in a given situation, till a point that you arrive at the root cause of the problem. It was developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used originally in the Toyota Motor Corporation. Here is an example:


As we can see, while traditional problem solving offers a quick-fix, such solutions are not sustainable. Innovation allows us a newer, richer perspective that generates sustainable alternatives. It rattles us out of the belief that there can only be one way of dealing with a certain problem, just because that way has been in use for a long time.


This technique was created by Bob Eberle and is derived from Alex Osborn’s famed Checklist. SCAMPER is an acronym for Substitute – Combine – Adapt – Modify – Put to another use – Eliminate – Reverse/Rearrange. Here is an example using this technique:


So here we have innovation supplying us with multiple alternatives instead of a routine solution that will not be effective.

Allowing Innovation

Cultivating the competency and culture of innovation requires that we allow innovation. This means, we conscious pause between a problem and a solution and really explore the possibilities, much the way a child explores his/her environment without any pre-conceived notions. So does that mean innovation is time-consuming? No. Practical implementation of the tools of innovation such as the ones mentioned in this article take barely a few minutes. However, consistent innovation needs a commitment to allow the child in us to play from time to time. Now that’s a fun proposition, is it not?

(Rukmini Iyer is the Director of Exult! Solutions. She has worked extensively around Asia in the areas of organization development and training. She actively practices Non-Violent Communication, NLP and Appreciative Inquiry and is a trained expert in conflict resolution.)

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