Can you teach someone to be innovative?

I asked this question at a recent CoLearn MeetUp to a fellow colearner and he was quite taken aback by the question.  It is a tough one and I think the question quickly pegs down your beliefs about how we learn.  Are some people just born innovative or can you follow a process to be innovative (and in essence be taught how to be innovative)?  Replace innovation with creativity in the question and what do you think?  Can you teach someone to be creative?  When we think of innovative thinkers and doers, we often would also think of them as being creative.  Is the capacity to see and discover new opportunities or possibilities a genetic predisposition or a process that can be taught?  In my opinion, I believe you can teach someone to be innovative and creative.  It all comes down to discipline.  Let me explain.

Currently I am reading and rereading (such a good book!) Larry Keeley’s book Ten Types of Innovation.  The byline is “The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs”.  Keeley and his colleagues have spent the past thirty years living and breathing innovation and had me hooked by the second page when I read the following provocation.

What do you do when the problems are real, the stakes are high, time is short, and abstract answers are inadequate?

Larry Keeley

Education = real problems, high stakes, no time and no tolerance for ambiguity.  So where do we go from here?  Through analysing innovation over thirty years, Keeley and team of Ryan Pikkel, Brian Quinn and Helen Waters have discovered that there are ten types of innovation.  A “periodic table of innovation” as they eloquently put it.  The below image lists the ten types.

Ten Types of Innovation

I will unpack the ten types in a later post but I want to focus on the demystification that Keeley kicks the book off with and return to my original question.  He firstly defines innovation as “the creation of of a viable new offering”.  He then dispels common myths about innovation by stating the following:

  • Innovation is not invention

  • Think beyond products

  • Very little is truly new in innovation

  • Innovations have to earn their keep

  • Innovation requires discipline

The last point is one that keeps popping up when I read works from innovation leaders and experts from around the world.  Valerie Hannan and her team at the Innovation Unit have developed the Disciplined Innovation Model and believe that for lasting change to occur, innovation needs to systematic and disciplined. Eric Ries, the pioneer of the Lean Start Up uses the discipline of the scientific method and fast feedback loops to drive innovation success.  This process has revolutionised business all over the world.  Jake Knapp and the team at Google Ventures have a developed a five day design sprint method designed to reduce assumptions and build solutions that work and this process is disciplined and systematic and has helped organisations like Slack develop and improve.

Innovation = disciplined.

Great innovation follows a process and so can be taught.  I’ll finish with a provocation…

Do you believe creativity can be taught?

Thanks as always for reading.


9 thoughts on “Can you teach someone to be innovative?

Add yours

  1. If you are going to be writing this regularly Steve, I’m excited. Personally, I question the ‘discipline’ associated with innovation and would rather suggest that you can create the environment in which innovation can foster. I think about that space you created with the couch etc … To me you did so as you wanted to create an environment, not a structure of discipline. Such an environment starts and finishes with culture and a vision. If this is not in place, I personally don’t think that any structure really matters. #startwithwhy

    1. My plan is write more regularly, at least once a week any way. Thanks as always for continuing the conversation, always count on you for great dialogue. I agree that the conditions for innovation need to present for it to flourish but is the “build it and they will innovate” approach enough? I don’t think so. Discipline leads to a reduction in the guessing and improves the effectiveness of the change. Richard’s work is disciplined in structure and I think this is its strength (well that and shared language). It builds capacity because it gives them a process to work through.

      1. Interesting, I actually perceive Richard’s work as creating an environment, I guess structure and discipline are a part of this. I think that Alma Harris sums it up best, “It does not matter what you call it, what matters is that the collaboration is disciplined.”

  2. Largely, I think most of these tools and processes are necessary as they enable people who aren’t yet developed as innovators to act (and be successful) as if development had already occurred. That is, to act as if they were already innovators, when without the tools and processes they would fail. For example, following the Lean Startup methodology and using the tools, enables (almost) anyone to act as if they were a seasoned entrepreneur. Once you’ve developed as an entrepreneur, religiously following the methodology probably matters less. Of course, that’s a simple view of development, and in reality it is much more complex. The development of creative people is no different.

    That’s development of individuals, and it only addresses half your post. Yes we can develop as innovative and/or creative people, but what does this tell us about the nature of innovation… Does it need to be systematic and disciplined?

    Lean startup “works” because of the current conditions: 1) the ease and low cost of creating and publishing globally thanks to the internet, 2) agile engineering processes, 3) advances in the understanding of business models and customer development. There are probably others. Prior to the internet, one could probably argue that the conditions/environment weren’t appropriate and Lean Startup might not have been as suitable and successful as it has been. There is also no guarantee that the environmental conditions will stay the same (in the long term) and that the lean startup methodologies will keep “working.”

    I think your quote from Larry Keeley above “What do you do when the problems are real, the stakes are high, time is short, and abstract answers are inadequate?” does a pretty good job at describing the current climate in most schools, and therefore makes a pretty good case for disciplined and systematic innovation processes. While that climate change? Maybe? Hopefully? But at the moment I reckon you make a pretty good argument. (Sorry for the long reply)

  3. Lots of good comments here, and I think that the environment needed for innovation has many debatable variables. I would suggest that discipline is definitely needed but at critical times, and other times should be non-existent, replaced by creativity and unstructured energy. I think that the discipline needs to factor in heavily when you are validating a product and commercializing it. During this phase teaching can be applied and learning will happen. Therefore partly answering that yes Innovation can be taught. Conversely in the ideate stages or both product creation and consumer offering I would argue that innate skills rise to the surface in people. Skills that are not taught. Appreciate all your time. Cheers

    1. Thanks for commenting Mark. Do you think that some of those innate skills could be taught? I think that there is great freedom within a disciplined framework for the innate skills, for creativity and the like. The question about natural disposition versus learnt skills is one that really intrigues me. Would love your thoughts!

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